Bel canto, p.9
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       Bel Canto, p.9

           Ann Patchett

  “That man there,” Father Arguedas said, lowering his voice, “I believe he is dying.”

  “He isn’t dying,” General Alfredo said. “He’s trying to get her out. He is pretending to die.”

  “I don’t believe so. The pulse, the color of the skin.” He looked back over his shoulder, past the grand piano and huge bouquets of lilies and roses arranged for a party long since over, to the spot where the accompanist lay on the edge of carpet like something large and spilled. “Some things one can’t pretend.”

  “He chose to stay. We put him out the door and he came back. Those are not the actions of a dying man.” General Alfredo turned his head away. He rubbed his hand. Ten years those fingers had been gone and still they ached.

  “Go back to where you were told to wait,” General Benjamin said to the priest. He was enjoying a breath of false relief seeing half of the people gone, as if half of his problems were solved. He knew it to be false but he wanted some quiet time in which to enjoy it. The room looked wide open.

  “I would like some oil from the kitchen to perform last rites.”

  “No kitchen,” General Benjamin said, wagging his head. He lit a cigarette in order to be rude to the young priest. He wanted the priest and the accompanist to have left when they were told to leave. People shouldn’t be allowed to decide that they wished to remain a hostage. He had very little experience being rude to priests and he needed the cigarette as a prop. He shook out the match and dropped it on the carpet. He wanted to blow the smoke forward but could not.

  “I can do it without the oil,” Father Arguedas said.

  “No last rites,” General Alfredo said. “He isn’t dying.”

  “I was only asking for the oil,” the priest said respectfully. “I wasn’t asking about the last rites.”

  Each of the Generals meant to stop him, to slap him, to have one of the soldiers march him back in line with a gun in his back, but none felt able to do so. That was either the power of the Church or the power of the opera singer leaning over the man they took to be her lover. Father Arguedas returned to Roxane Coss and her accompanist. She had unbuttoned the top of his shirt and was listening to his chest. Her hair spilled over his neck and shoulders in a way that would have thrilled the accompanist immeasurably if he had been conscious, but she could not wake him. Nor could the priest. Father Arguedas knelt beside him and began the prayer of last rites. Perhaps it was grander when one had the vestments and robes, when there was oil to work with, the beauty of candles, but a simple prayer felt in some ways closer to God. He hoped the accompanist was a Catholic. He hoped that his soul would speed towards the open arms of Christ.

  “God the father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace.” Father Arguedas felt a rush of tenderness for this man, an almost choking bond of love. He had played for her. He had heard her voice day after day and been shaped by it. With great sincerity he whispered, “I absolve you from your sins,” into the chalk-white ear. And truly, he did forgive the accompanist for everything he might have done, “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

  “Last rites?” Roxane Coss said, taking the cold, damp hand that had worked so tirelessly on her behalf. She didn’t know the language, but the rituals of Catholicism were recognizable anywhere. This could not be a good sign.

  “Through the holy mysteries of our redemption, may almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come. May He open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy.”

  Roxane Coss looked dazed, as if the hypnotist had swung his watch but had not yet snapped his fingers. “He was a very good pianist,” she said. She wanted to join in, but frankly, no longer remembered the prayers. She added, “He was punctual.”

  “Let us ask the Lord to come to our brother with His merciful love, and grant him relief through this holy anointing.” Father Arguedas touched his thumb to his tongue because he needed something wet and could think of nothing else. He marked the accompanist’s forehead, saying, “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.”

  Roxane could see the nuns standing over her as she memorized her prayers. She could see the dark rosewood rosaries hanging from their waists, she could smell the coffee on their breath and a faint odor of perspiration in the fabric of their dresses, Sister Joan and Sister Mary Joseph and Sister Serena. She could remember each of them but not a single word of prayer. “Sometimes we ordered sandwiches and coffee after rehearsal,” she said, though the priest could not understand her and the accompanist no longer heard her voice. “We talked some then.” He had told her about his childhood. He was from Sweden, or Norway? He talked about how cold it was in the winters but how he never really noticed, growing up there. His mother wouldn’t let him play any sort of ball games because she was so worried about his hands. Not after all the money she had spent on piano lessons.

  Father Arguedas anointed the accompanist’s hands, saying, “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”

  Roxane picked up some of his fine blond hair and held it over her fingers. It looked anemic. It looked like it belonged to a person who wasn’t long for this world. The truth was, she had hated the accompanist a little. For months they had worked together amicably. He knew his music. He played with passion but never tried to overshadow her. He was quiet and reserved and she liked that about him. She did not try to draw him out. She never thought about him enough to wonder if she should. Then it was decided that he would come with her on this trip. No sooner had the wheels of the plane lifted up from the tarmac than the accompanist grabbed her hand and told her about the impossible burden of love he had been living with. Didn’t she know? All those days of being next to her, of hearing her sing. He leaned into her seat and tried to press his ear against her chest but she pushed him away. It was like that every minute of the eighteen-hour flight. It was like that in the limousine to the hotel. He pleaded and wept like a child. He cataloged every outfit she had worn to every rehearsal. Outside the car window an impenetrable wall of leaves and vines sped past. Where was she going? He crept one finger over to touch her skirt and she knocked it away with the back of her hand.

  Roxane bowed her head and closed her eyes, pressed her hands together with the strands of his hair caught in between. “A prayer can just be something nice,” Sister Joan had said. Sister Joan was her favorite, young and nearly pretty. She kept chocolate in her desk. “It isn’t always the things you want. It can be the things you appreciate.” Sister Joan would often ask Roxane to sing for the children before assembly, “Oh Mary We Crown Thee with Flowers Today,” even in the dead of a Chicago winter.

  “He always wanted to hear about Chicago, I grew up in Chicago,” she whispered. “He wanted to know what it was like to grow up near an opera house. He said, now that he was in Italy he could never leave. He said he couldn’t bear those cold northern winters now.”

  Father Arguedas looked up at her, desperate to know what she was saying. Was it confession, prayer?

  “Maybe it was something he ate,” she said. “There could be a food he was allergic to. Maybe he was sick before we got here.” Certainly, he was not the man she had known.

  They were all three quiet for a while, the accompanist with his eyes closed, the opera singer and the priest both staring down at those closed eyes. Then something occurred to Roxane Coss and without hesitation she reached into his pockets and pulled out his wallet and handkerchief and a roll of mints. She flipped through the wallet and put it down. His passport was there: Sweden. She slipped her hands deep into his pants pockets, at which point Father Arguedas stopped his prayers to watch her. There she found a hypodermic needle, used and capped, and a small glass vile with a rubber top, empty but for a drop or two circling the b
ottom. Insulin. All out of insulin. They would be back at the hotel by midnight, they had been promised. There was no reason to bring more than one shot along. She scrambled to her feet, the necessary proof in her upturned palms. Father Arguedas raised his head as she rushed to the Generals. “Diabetic!” she cried, a word that had to be more or less the same in any language. Those medical terms came off Latin roots, the single tree they should all understand. She turned her head towards the men’s wall, where they were all watching, like this was any other night at the opera and tonight’s performance was the tragic death of the accompanist, Il Pianoforte Triste.

  “Diabetic,” she said to Gen.

  Gen, who had wanted to give the priest his chance, came forward now and explained what the Generals must, without benefit of translation, have understood: the man was in a diabetic coma, which meant that somewhere out there was the medicine needed to save him if he was still alive. They went over to see, General Benjamin dropping his cigarette into the marble fireplace which was big enough to hold three good-sized children. In fact, the Vice President’s own three children had crowded in there together after it had been emptied of ashes and scrubbed down, and pretended to be cooked by witches. Father Arguedas had finished the formal prayer and now simply knelt beside the accompanist, his hands wrapped together, his head bowed, praying silently that the man would find solace and joy in God’s eternal love now that he was dead.

  When the priest opened his eyes he saw that he and the accompanist were no longer alone. Father Arguedas smiled gently at the assembled crowd. “Who can separate us from the love of Christ?” he said by way of explanation.

  When Roxane Coss sank to the floor it was a lovely sight, the pale green chiffon of her dress billowing out like a canopy of new spring leaves caught in a sweep of April wind. She took in her hands the hand that his mother had been so careful with, the hand she had watched play Schumann lieder hour after hour without tiring. The hand was cold already, and the colors of his face, which hadn’t seemed right for hours, were quickly becoming very wrong, yellow around the eyes, a pale lavender creeping up near his lips. His tie was gone, as were the studs from his shirtfront, but he still wore his black tails and white waistcoat. He was still dressed for performance. Never for a minute had she thought he was a bad man. And he had been a brilliant pianist. It was just that he shouldn’t have waited until they were sealed up in that plane to tell her how he felt about her, and now that he was dead she wouldn’t even hold that against him.

  All the men had left their wall and come to the other side of the room, where they stood, more or less shoulder to shoulder with the band of terrorists. Every one of them had resented the accompanist, thought he was too lucky for being able to play the piano so well, thought he was too forward, the way he had shielded her from the rest of them. But when he was dead they felt the loss of him. He had died for her after all. Even from across the room in languages they may not have understood, they could follow the story clearly. He had never told her he was a diabetic. He had chosen to stay with her rather than ask for the insulin that could save his life. The poor accompanist, their friend. He was one of them.

  “Now a man is dead!” General Benjamin said, throwing up his hands. His own illness flared at the thought of it and the pain was like hot needles sewing together the nerve endings of his face.

  “It isn’t as if men haven’t died,” General Alfredo answered coolly. He had nearly died himself more times than he could remember: a bullet in his stomach, that nearly killed him! Two fingers shot off not six months after that, then last year a bullet passing cleanly through the side of his neck.

  “We are not here to kill these people. We are here to take the President and to go.”

  “No President,” Alfredo reminded him.

  General Hector, trusting no one, reached down and pressed his own thin fingers against the dead man’s jugular. “Perhaps we should shoot him, put his body outside. Let them know who they’re dealing with.”

  Father Arguedas, who had been keeping to his prayers, looked up and stared at the Generals pointedly. The idea of shooting their new-dead friend made the Spanish-speaking hostages recoil. Those who had not previously known that Roxane Coss did not speak the language were now sure of it because she remained in the same position, her head in her hands, her skirt circled out around her, while the Generals spoke of desecration.

  A German named Lothar Falken, who knew just enough Spanish to get the vaguest idea of what was going on, sidled up to Gen in the crowd and asked him to translate.

  “Tell them it won’t work,” he said. “The wound won’t bleed. You could shoot him straight through the head now and they’d still figure out soon enough that he didn’t die of a gunshot wound.” Lothar was the vice president of Hoechst, a pharmaceutical company, and had been a biology major at university many years before. He was feeling especially bad about the death, as insulin represented the vast majority of the company’s sales. They were, in fact, Germany’s leading manufacturer of the drug. They had it everywhere back at the office, free samples of every variety of insulin just waiting to be given away, refrigerators full of endless, clinking glass vials there for the taking. He had come to the party because he felt if Nansei was considering an electronics plant in the host country, he might consider manufacturing there as well. Now he was staring at a man who died wanting insulin. He couldn’t save the man’s life, but at least he could spare him the indignity of being killed again.

  Gen related the information, trying to choose words that would make the whole thing sound more gruesome rather than less, as he, too, did not want to see the poor accompanist shot.

  General Hector took out his gun and stared thoughtfully down the sight. “That’s ridiculous,” he said.

  Roxane Coss looked up then. “Who’s he going to shoot?” she asked Gen.

  “No one,” Gen assured her.

  She wiped her fingers in a straight line beneath her eyes. “Well, he isn’t going to clean his gun. Are they going to start killing us now?” Her voice was tired, practical, as if to say she had a schedule and she needed to know where things stood.

  “You might as well tell her the truth,” the Vice President whispered to Gen in Spanish. “If anyone can stop this I would think it would be her.”

  It should not be Gen’s responsibility, deciding what was best for her, what to tell and what not to tell. He did not know her. He did not know how she would take such a thing. But then she grabbed his ankle in the same way a standing person might have grabbed a wrist in an argument. He looked down at this famous hand touching his pant’s leg and felt confused.

  “English!” she said.

  “They’re considering shooting him,” Gen confessed.

  “He’s dead,” she said, in case they had missed the point. “How do you say dead in Spanish? Dead.”

  “Difunto,” Gen said.

  “Difunto!” Her voice was sliding up into the higher registers now. She stood up. At some point she had made the mistake of taking off her shoes, and in a room full of men this small woman seemed especially small. Even the Vice President had several inches on her. But when she put her shoulders back and raised her head it was as if she was willing herself to grow, as if from years of appearing far away on a stage she had learned how to project not just her voice but her entire person, and the rage that was in her lifted her up until she seemed to tower over them. “You understand this,” she said to the Generals. “Any bullet that goes into that man goes through me first.” She was feeling very bad about the accompanist. She had demanded that the flight attendant find her another seat but the flight was full. She had been quite cruel to him on the plane in an attempt to make him be quiet.

  She pointed a finger at Gen, who reluctantly told them what she had said.

  The men who circled them like a gallery approved of this. Such love! He had died for her, she would die for him!

  “You’ve kept one woman, one American, and the one person that anyone in the world has e
ver heard of before, and if you kill me, and make no mistake, you will have to—are you getting all this?” she said to the translator. “The very wrath of God will come down on you and your people.”

  Even though Gen translated, a clear and simple word-for-word translation, every person in the room understood what she was saying without him, in the same way they would have understood her singing Puccini in Italian.

  “Take him out of here. Drag him to the front steps if you have to, but you let the people out there send him home in one piece.” A light perspiration had come up on Roxane Coss’s forehead, making her glow like Joan of Arc before the fire. When she was completely finished she took a breath, fully reinflating her massive lungs, and then sat down again. Her back was to the Generals and she bent forward to lean her head against the chest of her accompanist. Resting on this still chest, she drew herself back into composure. She was surprised to find his body comforting and she wondered if it was just that she could like him now that he was dead. Once she felt she was herself again she kissed him to reinforce her point. His lips were slack and cool above the hard resistance of his teeth.

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