Favorite passages from
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Harper Collins, New York, 2001
On the third ring there was an answer. "Alo!"
"Manuel?" the priest said. "Manuel, hello?" He felt his voice choke with emotion. Someone outside the house! It was like seeing a ghost from his former life, a silvery shadow walking down the aisle toward the altar. Manuel. He had not been in captivity two full weeks but upon hearing that voice the priest felt as if he were dead to the world.
"Who is this?" The voice was suspicious.
"It is your friend, Father Arguedas." The priest's eyes filled with tears and he held up his hand to excuse himself from the crowd and stepped into the corner, into the lustrous folds of the draperies.
There was a long silence on the other end. "Is this a joke?"
"Manuel, no, I'm calling."
"I am in—" he said, but then faltered. "I have been detained."
"We know all about that Father, are you well? Do they treat you all right? They let you make phone calls there?"
"I am well. I am fine. The call, no, it is a special circumstance."
"We say the mass for you every day." Now it was his friend's voice that was breaking. "I only came home for lunch. I have only just walked in the door. If you had called five minutes before I wouldn't have been here. Are you safe? We hear terrible things."
"They say the mass for me?" Father Arguedas wrapped his hand around the heavy draperies and rested his cheek against the soft cloth. To the best of his knowledge, he had been remembered in the mass along with twenty-three others on the Sunday before he took his holy orders, and that was all. To think of those people, the people he prayed for, praying for him. To think that God heard his name from so many voices. "They must pray for all of us here, the hostages and captors alike."
"We do," Manuel said, "But the mass is offered in your name."
"I can't believe this," he whispered.
"Does he have the music?" Roxane asked and then Gen asked the priest.
Father Arguedas remembered himself. "Manuel." He coughed to try and clear the emotion from his voice. "I'm calling to ask you for a favor."
"Anything, my friend. Do they want money?"
The priest smiled to think that with all these wealthy men around it would be put to him to ask a music teacher for money. "Nothing like that. I need sheet music. There is a singer here—"
"You know everything," he said, taking comfort in his friend's concern. "She needs music to practice with."
"I heard her accompanist was dead. Murdered by the terrorists. I heard they cut off his hands."
Father Arguedas was shocked. What else did people say about them now that they were gone? "It was nothing like that. He died all on his own. The man was a diabetic." Should he defend the people who kept them? Surely, they should not be falsely accused of cutting the hands off a pianist. "It isn't so bad here. I don't mind it, really. We've found another accompanist. Someone who plays very well, I think," he said, dropping his voice to a whisper. "Perhaps even better than the first one. She wants things in a wide range, opera scores, Bellini songs, Chopin for the accompanist. I have a list."
"There is nothing she needs that I don't have," Manuel said confidently.
The priest could hear his friend rummaging for paper, a pen. "I told her that."
"You spoke of me to Roxane Coss?"
"Of course. That's why I'm calling."
"She's heard my name?"
"She wants to sing from your music," the priest said.
"Even when you are locked away you manage to do good work." Manuel sighed. "What an honor for me. I will bring them now. I will skip lunch completely."
The two men conferred about the list and then Father Arguedas double-checked it with Gen. When everything was settled, the priest asked his friend to hold the line. He hesitated and then he held out the phone to Roxane. "Ask her to say something," he said to Gen.
"Anything. It doesn't matter. Ask her to say the names of the operas. Would she do that?"
Gen made the request and Roxane Coss took the small phone from the priest's hand and held it to her ear. "Hello?" she said.
"Hello?" Manuel parroted in English.
She looked at the priest and she smiled. She looked right at him while she said the names into the phone. "La Bohème," she said. "Così fan tutti."
"Dear God," Manuel whispered.
"La Gioconda, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Madama Butterfly."
It was as if a white light filled up the priest's chest, a hot sort of brightness that made his eyes water and his heart beat like a desperate man pounding on the church door at night. Had he been able to lift up his hands to touch her he could not be sure he could have stopped himself. But it didn't matter. He was paralyzed by her voice, the music of speaking, the rhythmic loops of the names that passed through her lips, into the phone, and then into Manuel's ear some two miles away. The priest knew then for sure that he would survive this. That there would come a day when he would sit at Manuel's kitchen table in his small apartment cluttered with music and they would shamelessly recount the pleasure of this exact moment. He would have to live if only to have that cup of coffee with his friend. And while they would remember, try to place in order the names that she spoke, Father Arguedas would know that he had been the more fortunate of the two because it was he whom she had looked at when she spoke.
— Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
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There was one other person there who understood the music, but she was not a guest. Standing in the hallway, looking around the corner to the living room, was Carmen, and Carmen, though she did not have the words for it, understood everything perfectly. This was the happiest time of her life and it was because of the music. When she was a child dreaming on her pallet at night, she never dreamed of pleasures like these. None of her family, left behind in the mountains, could have understood that there was a house made of bricks and sealed glass windows that was never too hot or too cold. She could not have believed that somewhere in the world there was a vast expanse of carpet embroidered to look like a meadow of flowers, or that ceilings came tipped in gold, or that there could be pale marble women who stood on either side of a fireplace and balanced the mantelpiece on their heads. And that would have been enough, the music and the paintings and the garden which she patrolled with her rifle, but in addition there was food that came every day, so much food that some was always wasted no matter how hard they tried to eat it all. There were deep white bathtubs and an endless supply of hot water pouring out of the curved silver spigots. There were stacks of soft white towels and pillows and blankets trimmed in satin and so much space inside that you could wander off and no one would know where you had gone. Yes, the Generals wanted something better for the people, but weren't they the people? Would it be the worst thing in the world if nothing happened at all, if they all stayed together in the generous house? Carmen prayed hard. She prayed while standing near the priest in hopes it would give her extra creditability. What she prayed for was nothing. She prayed that God would look on them and see the beauty of their existence and leave them alone.
— Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
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