From City of Saints & Madmen


Jeff VanderMeer

The shade of the composer Voss Bender himself might have passed Belacqua in the back corridors of the opera house; the aging critic Janice Shriek might have half-noticed the stoic humor of his performance, just not thought it important enough to mention in her review.

     Much about him cried out for attention. Above the black shoes: the long red socks, matched only by the outrageous pink-blue chessboard buttons of his jacket, mimicked in lazy rural fashion by the green eyes on his yellow shirt. His hair—in a twisted red braid (frayed at the end)—hung down in front like the fuse to the bomb of his head. His made-up face reflected a certain forethought mirrored in the shrewd miscalculation of his clothes. The eyebrows (more than one opera-goer may have thought, attention wandering momentarily from the major players) had been stolen from the flourishes on the body of a violin: they overpowered the small, terrified eyes, melted into the lines of the long, garrulous (fake) nose, which itself loomed over the parrotfish mouth (flanked by vertical lines like gills) and sometimes slid down in mock surrender to gravity by performance’s end. This farce was pigmented with sow-pink skin, paler above the rarefied heights of the dueling eyebrows, as overdone in description as in life.

     But we would know all of this if we had attended a performance, his costume blaring at us like a bawdy horn. Belacqua, Belacqua, the horns blared—this is Belacqua. See him move across the stage. See him briefly speak, and turning burn his image across our eyes. We could never know that he lives on the fifth floor of a hideous old hotel, in a cramped apartment with indifferent lime-green wallpaper. Neighbors who move around above and below like blunt objects with a dulled sense of direction. Children who cry in the dark like ragged ghosts. A flutter of wings at the windowpane, delicate as eyelashes, and then gone. The repeated banging of a bedpost like some erotic gunshot aimed at his heart. (Next door, for ease of transition and translation, a necropole awaits those who grow cold in the hotel’s embrace.)

     On weekend mornings, he sits on the balcony, an unlit cigar between his lips. Dressed in a plain white robe, renouncing all make up, he feels the wind move through him as if he does not exist. He watches the people who pass by on the street below and anoints them all with secret lives, breathes into them qualities to match the golden light that filters down between the rooftops.

     Sometimes, his gaze blurs upon the filigreed balcony railing as he remembers his dreams. His dreams are all disturbing jokes with obscure punchlines. In one dream, he sees his father: a dark figure at the far end of an alley, briefly illuminated by the glare of a bulb that cuts through the murk. He hears the sound of running water or beer poured from a bottle. Shards of glass lacerate his feet as he runs across the cobblestones. But the joke is, no matter how fast he runs, he can never come close enough to read his father’s eyes. Motionless, frictionless, his father glides ahead, continually twenty, thirty feet beyond his grasp.

     The filigree of the balcony at first seems like protection from the dream, not protection from falling. He drops the cigar, stands up, goes back inside, dresses in subdued pants and shirt, descends the stairs, walks out onto the street, loses himself there, glad to be anonymous. He leaves his opera persona behind him like an abandoned skin: a husk that has as little to do with him as his clothes.

     As he walks toward Albumuth Boulevard (possibly to buy a book at Borges Bookstore, possibly just to wander), a black flame burns inside of him—it lights up his eyes and lends his speech (a word to the fruit vendor, a brief exchange with a more talented but unemployed actor) a subdued yet incandescent fury. Each word arrives burnt around the edges, consumed. His mother used to talk that way, as she let her life be created by his father. The Great Actor. The Drowned Man. The Drunkard.

     Even now, he cannot completely forget his role in Bender’s most popular opera, the last written before his death and staged posthumously under a one-word title: Trillian. The opera recounts, in six raucous acts lasting four hours, the reign of Trillian the Great Banker, leaving out nothing, presenting every scene as a painting of the sort in which a thousand brightly-colored details battle for the viewer’s attention. His role, as the Great Banker’s gray cap advisor Belacqua, consisted of four lines and two hours of pratfalls.

     The part was based on hearsay, heresy, and innuendo, for no history he had ever read mentioned Trillian’s advisor. Bender had made it up, and he had played the falsehood for ten years now, the opera’s undiminished popularity both blessing and curse. His father would never have taken such a role, but he had no choice. He had always recognized both the limitations of his acting style and that he lacked any spark of talent in other trades. Belacqua he was and Belacqua he would always be. Thus doomed to replay this other self night after night, while his father’s ghost hooted and howled, besotted, from some upper balcony seat.

     The role, though small, required work, if only because the directors could require work of him without complaint. They told him exactly where to stand, and he stood there. They told him when to make absurd little motions in time to the main players pouring out in perfect pitch and tone the words that now to his ears had no meaning, much as any repetition reduces function and content to a void. He also studied gray caps when he came upon them slumped in alleys or, from a distance, at dusk as they began to waken—observed their hunching gait, their distinctive clothing, their deep, unknowable eyes. He even took lessons on how to project small upon the audience, making his five-foot-six-inch height look like four-foot-four (this last a precaution against getting the boot).

     In his pocket, he kept a crumpled piece of paper. On the paper he had scribbled stage directions and The Lines.

BELACQUA approaches the front of the stage, holding the bloody knife. When he reaches TRILLIAN, he sternly sings:

                 What you cannot know and will not trust

                 Will find you here because it must—

                 I fly away now, the night to bring

Down upon Trillian’s head, and then? No-thing.

     Below this, he had written what he thought Belacqua felt in that moment: “Everything that had been building up for so long—dissipated in the pool of blood bubbling up from X’s body.”

     He knew how Belacqua felt, but he didn’t know what the lines meant, even after ten years. For ten years, he had been saying these lines, show after show, and they were incomprehensible to him. He didn’t even believe the lines were particularly relevant to the opera. They seemed to have arrived from some other opera, confused in Bender’s mind, glittering darkly and spun into Trillian on a whim. Not that it should bother him as much as it did—he hadn’t actually written the lines. Although he would have liked to be a writer, he had always been written.

     Late one afternoon, he brought home a loaf of fresh bread, a squid pie, and a bottle of red wine imported from Morrow. As he entered the apartment, the telephone rang. He froze at the sound, did not at first recognize it. Phones did not often ring in such an old and sleeping city. Then, as if awakened from dream, he dropped the bag. He walked into the kitchen, picked up the receiver.

     “Hello?” he said. “Hello?” No response, only a low splashing gurgle of water in the background, so he said, “Who is this?”

     Like an imperfect echo, refracted by the corrosion of static, a voice replied, “Hello. Is this Henry? Henry, is that you?”

     A vague disappointment settled into his stomach like a smooth, gray stone. “No. It’s not. I’m sorry—you have a wrong number.”

     “But I have no other number. This is the only number.” A distressed tone had entered her voice. Such an achingly beautiful voice even without the new element of loss, even through the background interference.

     “I’m sorry,” he forced himself to say. “I’m not Henry.” I wish I was, Belacqua thought to himself, but I’m not even sure I’m Belacqua.

     The static raged, faded, raged, as the woman said, “Can you connect me to Henry?”

     “I don’t know Henry,” he said, a hint of desperation in his voice, “but if I did, I’d gladly connect you.”

     The woman began to weep. Such lovely weeping. He felt himself start to reach out through the phone line to comfort her. The whine of static stopped him. Now he listened to her and did not dare to interrupt.

“We’ve run out of time,” she said. “There is no time. I can’t call again. They’re coming now. I have to give you the message and leave here. It’s very important…They come up through the floor. If you’ve got metal floors, they come up even through the steel. They sneak around in your rooms at night. If they don’t like you, you’re dead, Henry.”


“Please. Don’t say a word. I know what you want to say, but please don’t say it. You shouldn’t say it. Here is the message: I delivered the last package to X last week. I’m to explain the writing was fine and the lock has been picked. He can find me if he tries. Make him try.”

“I’ll make him try,” he said, resigned to his role. “I have the message. But tell me one thing. What is your name? Please tell me your name. Maybe I can help you. Please . . . ”

Any answer she might have given was drowned out by the maniacal grinding of unseen engines of the night. The lapping of water against a dock. The clacking of keys against paper.

For a long time afterwards, he sat in semi-darkness, puffing on a cigar. The bag with his dinner in it lay forgotten by the open apartment door, the broken wine bottle leaking red wetness into the hall. It was the longest telephone conversation he had had in months. With a complete stranger. He watched the spark from the tip of his cigar. His skin felt tight, uncomfortable. His head was a mortar balanced atop a pestle. His fingers around the cigar were thick and slow. And yet, his heart beat as delicately as that of a stunned thrush he had once found on his way to the theater.

     He could make no sense of it, all through the night. What could he do? Why should he do anything? But in the morning he left a message for Henry and the woman on a note card at the central telephone exchange. So many lines got crossed that they had set up a special series of bulletin boards devoted to chronicling that very problem. He left the note card impaled on a thumbtack, a white moth lost amongst all the other white moths. When he looked back after having walked several paces, the message had disappeared into the blur of all the other distressed signals of miscommunication.

     The very next day, he became Belacqua again and stalked the stage as if he owned a very small portion of it. He opened his mouth and out leapt The Lines, crisp and insignificant as ever. As he gazed through the sparkling glare, past the frantic insectile movements of the orchestra, he wondered if the woman sat in one of those seats, or had attended some past performance. He felt helpless, lost, alone.

     The next weekend, he visited the message board. His message was still pinned there, writhing in the wind. No one had written a reply.

* * *

     One day the city froze over, the snow falling in muffled flakes. The lizards turned white, developed protective skin over their eyes, and grew thick fur. Lit by holiday lamps even on sunny days, the hotel took on an odd glow, a blanched light usually found only in paintings. He and Belacqua both thought it sad. He imagined the surprised gasping of the fish as they drowned on snow, their scales tipped with frost. The screams of the swans on the river, their legs trapped in the ice. (His silent screams at the sight of the unchanged message board.) The seasons had become strange in Ambergris. The seasons did not know how to change, just as the telephones did not know how to connect.

     In the midst of this, he came down with a fever that burrowed into his head like the most terrible word for torment. His limbs on fire, he trudged to the theater and donned his ridiculous costume. All through the performance, which he remembered only as a blur of sequins and song, his head ached and his eyes smoldered as if with smoke.

     Afterwards, mumbling his lines under his breath, he put his street clothes back on and drifted out the theater’s back entrance. The snow came down in clumps and clots. Not a single leaf had survived on the trees lining the avenue. The lamps had frosted over, trapping the light inside them. The sky resembled a writer’s idea of the worst kind of gray: streaked with shadow, shot through with darker shades. He trembled in the cold, breathed the sting of it into his lungs. The fever had worked so far into him that he had succumbed to a fatigued restlessness. He could not return to his apartment. He could not stand still. The message board. He would check it again, although only a day had passed since the last time.

     As he set off down the avenue, the fever lent everything he passed a terrible clarity. The polished brass of a lamp post shone so brightly it hurt his eyes. A boy dragged a wooden wagon past him and the dirty wheels revealed the inner mysteries of their polished grain to him. The pink faces of passersby ate into his mind with a cruel precision. He refused to grant them a secret life; he could forgive none of them for what he had done to himself. Yet he allowed himself this lie: he decided as he walked that he would never give up his quest to find the woman. He would return to the message board again and again until the thrush that was his heart could no longer bear it.

     His sense of despair so deep he would have drowned had he not already frozen, he approached the snow-flecked bulletin board. He found his message readily enough, faded around the edges, gray with ash, ink smeared but legible:


A chill slipped over him, extinguishing the fever. No one had written on it. No one would ever write on it. But then his roving gaze found another message on a card next to his own. It was new. It had no snow on it. The ink was still bright with the memory of forming words.


He stood there, looking up at the message. Was it meant for him? It could have been pure coincidence, as peripheral to his existence as the telephone call. It could have meant nothing. But even knowing this, he felt something loosen within him, thawing, as he read the words. He is not a character. This has never been a story. “Belacqua” began to fade away, and with him the lines, the costume, the opera. His father’s face. The woman’s voice.

     He blinked back tears as he read the message over and over again, memorizing it. His fingers curled around the crumpled piece of paper in his pocket. The edges cut against his palm. Somehow he knew that when he took the paper out of his pocket, the words written there would be utterly, irrevocably transformed.


artwork by scott eagle site by jt lindroos / oiva design