From City of Saints & Madmen
THE RELEASE OF BELACQUA
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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:
THIS MESSAGE IS FOR HENRY AND FOR THE WOMAN WHO CALLED ME. HENRY: THE LAST PACKAGE
HAS BEEN SENT. THE WRITING IS FINE BUT THE LOCK HAS
BEEN PICKED. TO THE WOMAN: I TALKED TO YOU ON THE TELEPHONE.
I’D LIKE TO TALK TO YOU AGAIN. PLEASE GIVE ME SOME WAY
TO CONTACT YOU. YOU HAVE A VERY BEAUTIFUL VOICE.
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 IS NOT A CHARACTER. THIS HAS NEVER BEEN A STORY. NOW THAT WE HAVE FILLED
HIM UP, WE RELEASE HIM. LET HIM BECOME WHATEVER HE WILL
BECOME. LET HIM NO LONGER BE WRITTEN. X.
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.