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A King Listens

The scepter must be held in the right hand, erect; you must never, never put it down, and for that matter you would have no place to put it: there are no tables beside the throne, or shelves, or stands to hold, say, a glass, an ashtray, a telephone. High, at the top of steep and narrow steps, the throne is isolated; if you drop anything, it rolls down and can never be found afterwards. God help you if the scepter slips from your grasp; you would have to rise, get down from the throne to pick it up; no one but the king may touch it. And it would hardly be a pretty sight to see a king stretched out on the floor to reach the scepter fetched up under some piece of furniture -- or, when it comes to that, the crown, which could easily fall off your head if you bend over. You can rest your forearm on the arm of the chair, so it will not tire. I am still speaking of your right arm, the one holding the scepter. As for the left, it remains free: you can scratch yourself if you like. At times the ermine cloak makes your neck itch, and the itch then spreads down your back and over your whole body. The velvet of the cushion, too, as it grows warm, produces an irritating sensation in the buttocks, the thighs. Feel no compunction about digging your fingers in where you itch, unfastening the gilt buckle of your big belt, shifting your collar, your medals, the fringed epaulettes. You are the king; nobody can utter a word of censure. The very idea.

The head must be held immobile; always remember that the crown is balanced on your pate, you cannot pull it over your ears like a cap on a windy day. The crown rises in a dome, more voluminous than the base that supports it, which means that its equilibrium is unstable: if you happen to doze off, to let your chin sink to your chest, the crown will then go rolling down and smash to bits, because it is fragile, especially the gold filagree studded with diamonds. When you feel it is about to slip, you have to be clever enough to adjust its position with little twitches of the head; but you must take care not to straighten up too brusquely or you will strike the crown against the baldaquin, whose draperies just graze it. In other words, you must maintain the regal composure that is supposed to be innate in your person.

For that matter, what need would you have to take all this trouble? You are the king; everything you desire is already yours. You have only to lift a finger and you are brought food, drink, chewing gum, toothpicks, cigarettes of every brand, all on a silver tray. When you feel sleepy, the throne is comfortable, overstuffed; you have only to close your eyes and relax against the back, while apparently maintaining your usual position. Whether you are asleep or awake, it is all the same: nobody notices. As for your corporal needs, it is no secret to anyone that the throne has an opening, like any self-respecting throne; twice a day they come to change the pot. More frequently, if it stinks.

In short, everything is foreordained to spare you any movement whatsoever. You would have nothing to gain by moving, and everything to lose. If you rise, if you take even a few steps, if you lose sight of the throne for an instant, who can guarantee that when you return you will not find someone else sitting on it? Perhaps someone who resembles you, identical to you. Go ahead then and try to prove you are the king, not he! A king is denoted by the fact that he is sitting on the throne, wearing the crown, holding the scepter. Now that these attributes are yours, you had better not be separated from them even for a moment.

There is the problem of stretching the legs, avoiding numbness, stiffened joints; to be sure, this is a serious inconvenience. But you can always kick, raise your knees, huddle up on the throne, sit there Turkish-fashion: naturally, for brief periods, when matters of State permit. Every evening those charged with the washing of the feet arrive and take off your boots for a quarter-hour; in the morning the deodorizing squad rubs your armpits with tufts of scented cotton.

The eventuality of your being seized with carnal desires has also been foreseen. Carefully chosen and trained court ladies, from the sturdiest to the most slender, are at your disposal, in turn, to ascend the steps of the throne and approach your timorous knees with their full skirts, gauzy and fluttering. The things that can be done, while you remain on the throne and they offer themselves frontally or from behind or at an angle, are various, and you can perform them in a few instants or, if the duties of the Realm grant you enough free time, you can linger a bit longer, say even three-quarters of an hour. In this case it is a good idea to have the curtains of the baldaquin drawn, to remove the king's intimacy from outside gazes, as the musicians play caressing melodies.

In sum, the throne, once you have been crowned, is where you had best remain seated, without moving, day and night. All your previous life has been only a waiting to become king; now you are king; you have only to reign. And what is reigning if not this long wait? Waiting for the moment when you will be deposed, when you will have to take leave of the throne, the scepter, the crown, and your head.

The hours are slow to pass; in the throne room the lamplight is always the same. You listen to time flowing by: a buzz like a wind; the wind blows along the corridors of the palace or in the depths of your ear. Kings do not have watches: it is assumed that they are the ones who govern the flow of time; submission to the rules of a mechanical device would be incompatible with regal majesty. The minutes' uniform expanse threatens to bury you like an avalanche of sand: but you know how to elude it. You have only to prick up your ears in order to recognize the sounds of the palace, which change from hour to hour: in the morning the trumpet blares for the flag-raising on the tower; the trucks of the royal household unload hampers and casks in the courtyard of the stores ; the maidservants beat the carpets on the railing of the loggia; at evening the gates creak as they are closed, a clatter rises from the kitchens, from the stables an occasional whinny indicates that it is currying time.

The palace is a clock: its ciphered sounds follow the course of the sun; invisible arrows point to the change of the guard on the ramparts with a scuffle of hobnailed boots, a slamming of rifle-butts, answered by the crunch of gravel under the tanks kept ready on the forecourt. If the sounds are repeated in the customary order, at the proper intervals, you can be reassured, your reign is in no danger: for the moment, for this hour, for this day still.

Sunk on your throne, you raise your hand to your ear, you shift the draperies of the baldaquin so that they will not muffle the slightest murmur, the faintest echo. For you the days are a succession of sounds, some distinct, some almost imperceptible; you have learned to distinguish them, to evaluate their provenance and their distance; you know their order, you know how long the pauses last; you are already awaiting every resonance or creak or clink that is about to reach your tympanum; you anticipate it in your imagination; if it is late in being produced, you grow impatient. Your anxiety is not allayed until the thread of hearing is knotted again, until the weft of thoroughly familiar sounds is mended at the place where a gap seemed to have opened. Vestibules, stairways, loggias, corridors of the palace have high, vaulted ceilings; every footstep, every click of a lock, every sneeze echoes, rebounds, is propagated horizontally along a suite of communicating rooms, halls, colonnades, service entries, and also vertically, through stairwells, cavities, skylights, conduits, flues, the shafts of dumbwaiters; and all the acoustical routes converge on the throne room. Into the great lake of silence where you are floating rivers of air empty, stirred by intermittent vibrations. Alert, intent, you intercept them and decipher them. The palace is all whorls, lobes: it is a great ear, whose anatomy and architecture trade names and functions: pavilions, ducts, shells, labyrinths. You are crouched at the bottom, in the innermost zone of the palace-ear, of your own ear; the palace is the ear of the king.

Here the walls have ears. Spies are stationed behind every drapery, curtain, arras. Your spies, the agents of your secret service: their assignment is to draft detailed reports on the palace conspiracies. The court teems with enemies, to such an extent that it is increasingly difficult to tell them from friends; it is known for sure that the conspiracy that will dethrone you will be made up of your ministers and officials. And you know that every secret service has been infiltrated by agents of the opposing secret service. Perhaps all the agents in your pay work also for the conspirators, are themselves conspirators; and thus you are obliged to continue paying them, to keep them quiet as long as possible.

Voluminous bundles of secret reports are turned out daily by electronic machines and laid at your feet on the steps of the throne. It is pointless for you to read them: your spies can only confirm the existence of the conspiracies, justifying the necessity of your espionage; and at the same time they must deny any immediate danger, to prove that their spying is effective. No one, for that matter, thinks you must read the reports delivered to you; the light in the throne room is inadequate for reading, and the assumption is that a king need not read anything, the king already knows what he has to know. To be reassured you have only to hear the clicking of the electronic machines coming from the secret services' offices during the eight hours established by the schedule. A swarm of operators feeds new data into the memory banks, follows complicated tabulations on the screens, pulls from the printers new reports, which are always the same report, repeated day after day with minimal variations regarding rain or fair weather. With minimal variations the same printers turn out the secret bulletins of the conspirators, the order of the day for the mutinies, the detailed plans for your deposition and execution.

You can read them, if you wish. Or pretend to have read them. What the spies' eavesdropping records, whether at your command or your enemies', is the maximum that can be translated into the code formulas, inserted into programs specifically devised to produce secret reports conforming to the official models. Threatening or comforting as it may be, the future that unfolds on those pages no longer belongs to you, it does not resolve your uncertainty. What you want revealed is something quite different, the fear and the hope that keep you awake, holding your breath, in the night: what your ears try to learn, about yourself, about your fate.

This palace, when you ascended the throne, at the very moment when it became your palace, became alien to you. Advancing at the head of the coronation procession, you walked through it for the last time, amid torches and flabella, before retiring to this hall which it is neither prudent nor in accord with royal protocol for you to leave. What would a king do, roaming through corridors, offices, kitchens? There is no longer any place for you in the palace, save this hall.

The recollection of the other rooms, as you saw them the last time, quickly faded in your memory: and for that matter, bedecked as they were for the festivity, they were unrecognizable places, you would have got lost in them.

Sharper in your memory are certain glimpses remaining from the battle, when you moved to attack the palace at the head of your then loyal followers (who are now surely preparing to betray you): balustrades shattered by mortar explosions, breaches in the walls singed by fires, pocked by volleys of bullets. You can no longer think of it as the same palace in which you are seated on the throne; if you were to find yourself in it again, that would be a sign that the cycle has completed its course and your ruin is dragging you off, in your turn.

Still earlier, in the years you spent plotting at the court of your predecessor, you saw yet another palace, because certain apartments and not others were assigned to staff of your rank, and because your ambitions focused on the transformations you would bring about in the appearance of those places once you became king. The first order every new king issues, the moment he is installed on the throne, is to alter the arrangement and purpose of every room, the furniture, the wall-hangings, the plaster decoration. You did this, too, and you thought you would thus mark your real possession. On the contrary, you simply cast more memories in the grinder of oblivion, from which nothing is ever recovered.

To be sure, the palace contains some so-called historic chambers, which you would like to see again, even though they have been redone from top to bottom, to give them back the antique aspect lost with the passing years. But those rooms have recently been opened to tourists. You must stay well away from them; curled up on your throne, you recognize in your calendar of sounds the visiting days by the noise of the buses that stop in the plaza, the blathering of the guides, the chorus of amazed exclamations in various languages. Even on the days when the rooms are closed, you are formally advised against venturing there: you would stumble over the cleaning squad's brooms, the buckets, the drums of detergent. At night you would be lost, blocked by the reddening eyes of the alarm signals that bar your path, and in the morning you would find yourself trapped by parties armed with video cameras, regiments of old ladies with false teeth, wearing blue veils over their permanents, and obese gentlemen with flowered shirts hanging outside their trousers and with broad-brimmed straw hats on their heads.

While your palace remains unknown to you and unknowable, you can try to reconstruct it bit by bit, locating every shuffle, every cough at a point in space, imagining walls around each acoustical sign, ceilings, pavements, giving form to the void in which the sounds spread and to the obstacles they encounter, allowing the sounds themselves to prompt the images. A silvery tinkle is not simply a spoon that has fallen from the saucer where it was balanced, but is also a corner of a table covered with a linen cloth with lace fringe, in the light from a high window over which boughs of wistaria hang; a soft thud is not only a cat that has leaped upon a mouse, but is also a damp, moldy space beneath some steps, closed off by planks bristling with nails.

The palace is a construction of sounds that expands one moment and contracts the next, tightens like a tangle of chains. You can move through it, guided by the echoes, localizing creaks, clangs, curses, pursuing breaths, rustles, grumbles, gurgles.

The palace is the body of the king. Your body sends you mysterious messages, which you receive with fear, with anxiety. In an unknown part of this body, a menace is lurking, your death is already stationed there; the signals that reach you warn you perhaps of a danger buried in your own interior. The body seated askew on the throne is no longer yours, you have been deprived of its use ever since the crown encircled your head; now your person is spread out through this dark, alien residence that speaks to you in riddles. But has anything really changed? Even before, you knew little or nothing about what you were. And you were afraid of it, as you are now.

The palace is a weft of regular sounds, always the same, like the heart's beat, from which other sounds stand out, discordant, unexpected. A door slams. Where? Someone runs down steps, a stifled cry is heard. Long, tense minutes pass. A prolonged, shrill whistle resounds, perhaps from a window in the tower. Another whistle replies, from below. Then silence.

Does some story link one sound to another? You cannot help looking for a meaning, concealed perhaps not in single, isolated noises but between them, in the pauses that separate them. And if there is a story, does that story concern you? Will some series of consequences involve you finally? Or is it simply another indifferent episode among the many that make up the daily life of the palace? Every story you seem to divine brings you back to yourself, nothing happens in the palace unless the king has some part in it, active or passive. From the faintest clue you can derive an augury of your fate.

Perhaps the threat comes more from the silences than from the sounds. How many hours has it been since you heard the changing of the sentries? And what if the squad of guards faithful to you has been captured by the conspirators? Why has the familiar banging of pots not been heard from the kitchens? Have your trusted cooks perhaps been replaced by a team of killers, accustomed to sheathing all their actions in silence, poisoners now silently steeping the foods in cyanide. . . ?

Perhaps danger lurks in regularity itself. The trumpeter sounds the usual blast at the exact hour, as on every other day; but do you not sense that he is doing this with too much precision? Do you not catch a strange insistence in the rolling of the drums, an excess of zeal? The patrol's marching tread that reechoes along its round seems today to beat a lugubrious cadence, almost like a firing squad's. . . . The tracks of the tanks pass over the gravel almost without a creak, as if the mechanisms had been oiled more abundantly than usual: perhaps in the prospect of a battle?

Perhaps the troops of the guard are no longer those who were faithful to you. . . . Or perhaps, without their being replaced, they have gone over to the side of the conspirators. . . . Perhaps everything continues as before, but the palace is already in the hands of the usurpers; they have not arrested you yet because, after all, you no longer count for anything. They have forgotten you on a throne that is no longer a throne. The regular unfolding of palace life is a sign that the coup has taken place, a new king sits on a new throne, your sentence has been pronounced and it is so irrevocable that there is no need to carry it out in a hurry. . . .

Stop raving. Everything heard moving in the palace corresponds precisely to the rules you have laid down: the army obeys your orders like a prompt machine : the ritual of the palace does not allow the slightest variation in setting and clearing the table, in drawing the curtains or unrolling the ceremonial carpets according to the instructions received; the radio programs are those you decreed once and for all. The situation is in your grip; nothing eludes your will or your control. Even the frog that croaks in the basin, even the uproar of the children playing blind-man's-buff, even the old chamberlain's sprawl down the stairs: everything corresponds to your plan, everything has been thought out by you, decided, pondered, before it became audible to your ear. Not even a fly buzzes here if you do not wish it.

But perhaps you have never been so close to losing everything as you are now, when you think you have everything in your grip. The responsibility of conceiving the palace in its every detail, of containing it in your mind, subjects you to an exhausting strain. The obstinacy on which power is based is never so fragile as in the moment of its triumph.

Near the throne there is an angle of the wall from which every now and then you hear a kind of reverberation: distant blows, like knocking at a door. Is there someone rapping on the other side of the wall? But perhaps it is more a pilaster than a wall, a support that juts out, a hollow column, perhaps a vertical duct that runs through all the floors of the palace from the cellars to the roof, a flue, for example, that begins at the furnaces. Along this route sounds are transmitted through the entire height of the building; at one point of the palace, there is no knowing on which floor, but surely above or below the throne room something is striking the duct. Something or someone. Someone is striking cadenced blows with his fist; the muffled reverberation suggests that the raps come from far off. Blows that emerge from a dark profundity, yes, from below; a knocking that rises from underground. Are these raps signals?

Stretching out one arm, you can bang your fist against the corner. You repeat the blows as you have just heard them. Silence. Ah, there! they are heard again. The order of the pauses and the frequence are slightly changed. You repeat this time, too. Wait. Once more, you do not have to wait long for a reply. Have you established a dialogue?

For a dialogue you must know the language. A series of raps, one after the other, a pause, then more, isolated raps: can these signals be translated into a code? Is someone forming letters, words? Does someone want to communicate with you, does he have urgent things to say to you? Try the simplest key: one rap, a; two raps, b. . . . Or try Morse, make an effort to distinguish short sounds and long sounds. . . . At times it seems to you that the transmitted message has a rhythm, as in a musical phrase: this would also prove a wish to attract your attention, to communicate, to speak to you. . . . But this is not enough for you: if the raps follow one another with regularity they must form a word, a sentence. . . . And now you would already like to impose on the bare drip of sounds your desire for reassuring words: "Your Majesty . . . we . . . your loyal subjects . . . will foil all plots . . . long life . . ." Is this what they are saying to you? Is this what you manage to decipher, trying to apply all conceivable codes? No, nothing of the sort comes out. If anything, the message that emerges is entirely different, more on the order of: "Bastard dog usurper . . . vengeance . . . you will be overthrown. . . ."

Calm down. Perhaps it is all your imagination. Only chance combines the letters and words in this way. Perhaps these are not even signals: it could be the slamming of a door in a draft, or a child bouncing his ball, or someone hammering nails. Nails . . . "The coffin . . . your coffin . . ." -- now the raps form these words -- "I will emerge from this coffin . . . and you will enter it . . . buried alive . . ." Words without meaning, after all. Only your imagination imposes raving words on those formless reverberations.

You might as well imagine that when you rap your knuckles on the wall, drumming at random, someone else, listening God knows where in the palace, believes he can understand words, sentences. Try it. Without giving it any thought. Now what are you doing? Why do you concentrate so, as if you were spelling, making words? What message do you think you are sending down this wall? "You, too, usurper before me . . . I have defeated you . . . I could have killed you . . ." What are you doing? Are you trying to justify yourself to an invisible sound? Whom are you entreating? "I spared your life. . . . If your turn comes . . . remember . . ." Who do you think there is down below, striking the wall? Do you think your predecessor is still alive, the king you drove from the throne, from this throne where you are sitting? Is he the prisoner you had sealed up in the deepest cell of the palace?

You spend every night listening to the underground tom-tom, trying in vain to decipher its messages. But you harbor the suspicion that it is only a noise you have in your ears, the throbbing of your heart in upheaval, or the recollection of a rhythm that surfaces in your memory and reawakens fears, remorse. In train journeys at night the rumble of the wheels, always the same, is transformed, as you doze, into repeated words; it becomes a kind of monotonous chant. It is possible, nay, probable, that every undulation of sounds is transformed, in your ear, into the lament of a prisoner, the curses of your victims, the ominous panting of your enemies whom you cannot manage to kill. . . .

You are wise to listen, not to let your attention lapse even for an instant; but you must be convinced of this: it is yourself you hear, it is within you that the ghosts acquire voices. Something you are incapable of saying even to yourself is trying painfully to make itself heard. . . . You are not convinced? You want absolute proof that what you hear comes from within you, not from outside? Absolute proof you will never have. Because it is true that the dungeons of the palace are filled with prisoners, supporters of the deposed sovereign, courtiers suspected of disloyalty, strangers caught in the roundups your police carry out periodically as a precautionary intimidation, and then the victims end up forgotten in high-security cells. . . . Since all these people keep shaking their chains day and night, or rattle their spoons against the bars, chanting protests, striking up seditious songs, it would be only natural if some echo of their din came all the way up to you, even though you have had walls and floors soundproofed, and have sheathed this hall with heavy draperies. It is not impossible that from those very dungeons there comes what seemed to you before a cadenced rapping but now has become a kind of deep, grim thunder. Every palace stands on cellars where someone is buried alive or where some dead man cannot find peace. You need not bother covering your ears with your hands: you will go on hearing them all the same.

Do not become obsessed with the noises of the palace, unless you wish to be snared in them as in a trap. Go out! Run away! Rove! Outside the palace spreads the city, the capital of the realm, your realm! You have become king not to possess this sad, dark palace, but the city, various and pied, clamorous, with its thousand voices!

The city is stretched out in the night, curled up, it sleeps and snores, dreams and growls: patches of shadow and light shift every time it rolls over on this side or on that. Every morning the bells ring festively, or warningly, or in alarm: they send messages, but you can never trust what they really want to tell you. With their tolling for the dead you hear, mingled by the wind, some lively dance music; in the festive pealing, an explosion of infuriated voices. It is the breathing of the city to which you must listen, a breathing that can be labored and gasping or calm and deep.

The city is a distant rumble at the bottom of the ear, a hum of voices, a buzz of wheels. When in the palace all is still, the city moves, the wheels run through the streets, the streets run like the spokes of wheels, disks spin on gramophones, a needle scratches an old record, the music comes and goes, in gusts, it oscillates, down in the rumbling groove of the streets, or it rises high with the wind that spins the vanes of the chimneys. The city is a wheel whose hub is the place where you remain immobile, listening.

In summer the city comes through the open windows of the palace; it flies from all its own open windows, with its voices, outbursts of laughter and of tears, chatter of pneumatic drills, squawking of transistors. It is pointless for you to peer out from the balcony; seeing the roofs from above, you would recognize nothing of the streets you have not walked along since the day of your coronation, when the procession advanced among banners and decorations and lines of guards, and everything seemed even then already unrecognizable, distant.

The cool of the evening does not arrive as far as the throne room, but you recognize it from the summer-evening hum that does reach you even here. You might as well give up the idea of looking out from the balcony: you would gain nothing but mosquito bites, nothing that is not already contained in this roar, like that of a shell held to the ear. The city holds the roar of an ocean as in the whorls of the shell, or of the ear: if you concentrate on listening to the waves, you no longer know what is palace and what is city, ear, shell.

Among the sounds of the city you recognize every now and then a chord, a sequence of notes, a tune: blasts of fanfare, chanting of processions, choruses of schoolchildren, funeral marches, revolutionary songs intoned by a parade of demonstrators, anthems in your honor sung by the troops who break up the demonstration, trying to drown out the voices of your opponents, dance tunes that the loudspeaker of a nightclub plays at top volume to convince everyone that the city continues its happy life, dirges of women mourning someone killed in the riots. This is the music you hear; but can it be called music? From every shard of sound you continue to gather signals, information, clues, as if in this city all those who play or sing or put on disks wanted only to transmit precise, unequivocal messages to you. Since you mounted the throne, it is not music you listen to, but only the confirmation of how music is used: in the rites of high society, or to entertain the populace, to safeguard traditions, culture, fashion. Now you ask yourself what listening used to mean to you, when you listened to music for the sole pleasure of penetrating the design of the notes.

Once, to be happy, you had only to sketch a "tralalalà" with your lips, or with your mind, imitating the tune you had caught, in a simple little song or in a complex symphony. Now you try going "tralalalà," but nothing happens: no tune comes into your mind.

There was a voice, a song, a woman's voice that from time to time the breeze carried all the way up here to you from some open window; there was a love song that on summer nights the air brought you in bursts, and the moment you seemed to have grasped some note of it, it was already lost, and you were never sure you had really heard it and had not simply imagined it, desired to hear it, the dream of a woman's voice singing in the nightmare of your long insomnia. This is what you were waiting for, quiet and alert: it is no longer fear that makes you prick up your ears. You have begun to hear again this singing that reaches you with every note distinct, every timbre and color, from the city that has been abandoned by all music.

It has been a long time since you felt yourself attracted by something, perhaps since the time when all your powers became concentrated on conquering the throne. But all you remember now of the yearning that devoured you is your persistence against the enemies to overcome, which did not allow you to desire or imagine anything else. Even then it was a thought of death that accompanied you, day and night, as it does now, while you peer at the city in the darkness and silence of the curfew you have imposed to defend yourself against the revolt that is hatching; and you follow the tramp of the patrols on their rounds through the empty streets. And when in the darkness a woman's voice is released in singing, invisible at the sill of an unlighted window, then all of a sudden thoughts of life come back to you: your desires find an object. What is it? Not that song, which you must have heard all too many times, not that woman, whom you have never seen: you are attracted by that voice as a voice, as it offers itself in song.

That voice comes certainly from a person, unique, inimitable like every person; a voice, however, is not a person, it is something suspended in the air, detached from the solidity of things. The voice, too, is unique and inimitable, but perhaps in a different way from a person: they might not resemble each other, voice and person. Or else, they could resemble each other in a secret way, not perceptible at first: the voice could be the equivalent of the hidden and most genuine part of the person. Is it a bodiless you that listens to that bodiless voice? In that case, whether you actually hear it or merely remember it or imagine it makes no difference. And yet, you want it to be truly your ear that perceives that voice, so what attracts you is not only a memory or a fancy but the throbbing of a throat of flesh. A voice means this: there is a living person, throat, chest, feelings, who sends into the air this voice, different from all other voices. A voice involves the throat, saliva, infancy, the patina of experienced life, the mind's intentions, the pleasure of giving a personal form to sound waves. What attracts you is the pleasure this voice puts into existing: into existing as voice; but this pleasure leads you to imagine how this person might be different from every other person, as the voice is different.

Are you trying to imagine the woman who sings? But no matter what image you try to attribute to her in your imagination, the image-voice will always be richer. You surely do not wish to lose any of the possibilities it contains; and so it is best for you to stick to the voice, resist the temptation to run outside the palace and explore the city street by street until you find the woman who is singing.

But it is impossible to restrain you. There is a part of yourself that is running toward the unknown voice. Infected by its pleasure in making itself heard, you would like your listening to be heard by her, you would like to be voice, too, heard by her as you hear her.

Too bad you cannot sing. If you had known how to sing, perhaps your life would have been different, happier; or sad with a different sadness, a harmonious melancholy. Perhaps you would not have felt the need to become king. Now you would not find yourself here, on this creaking throne, peering at shadows.

Buried deep within yourself perhaps your true voice exists, the song that cannot break free of your clenched throat, from your lips parched and taut. Or else your voice wanders, scattered, through the city, timbres and tones disseminated in the buzzing. The man you are or have been or could be, the you that no one knows, would be revealed in that voice.

Try, concentrate, summon your secret strength. Now! No, that will not do. Try again, do not be disheartened. Ah, there! Now: miracle! You cannot believe your ears! Whose is this voice with the warm, baritone timbre that rises, finds its pitch, harmonizes with the silvery flashes of her voice? Who is singing this duet with her as if they were two complementary and symmetrical faces of the same vocal will? It is you who are singing, no doubt about it: this is your voice, which you can listen to at last without alienation or irritation.

But where are you able to find and produce these notes, if your chest remains contracted and your teeth clenched? You are convinced that the city is nothing but a physical extension of her person; and where should the king's voice come from then if not from the very heart of his kingdom's capital? With the same sharpness of ear that has enabled you to catch and follow until this moment the song of that unknown woman, now you collect the hundred fragments of sound that, united, compose an unmistakable voice, the voice that alone is yours.

There, dismiss every intrusion and distraction from your hearing. Concentrate: you must catch the woman's voice calling you and your voice calling her, together, in the same intention of listening (or would you call it the vision of your ear?). Now! No, not yet. Do not give up. Try again. In another moment her voice and yours will answer each other and merge to such a degree that you will no longer be able to tell them apart. . . .

But too many sounds intrude, frantic, piercing, ferocious: her voice disappears, stifled by the roar of death that invades the outside, or that perhaps reechoes inside you. You have lost her, you are lost; the part of you projected into the space of sounds now runs through the streets among the curfew patrols. The life of voices was a dream, perhaps it lasted only a few seconds, as dreams last, while outside the nightmare continues.

And yet, you are the king: if you seek a woman who lives in your capital, recognizable by her voice, you must be quite capable of finding her. Unleash your spies, give orders to search all the streets and all the houses. But who knows that voice? Only you. No one but you can carry out this search. And so, when a desire to be fulfilled presents itself to you at last, you realize that being king is of no use for anything.

Wait, you must not lose heart immediately; a king has many resources. Is it possible that you cannot devise a system to obtain what you want? You could announce a singing contest: by order of the king all female subjects of the realm who have a pleasant singing voice would present themselves at the palace. It would be, even more important, a clever political move, to soothe people's spirits in a period of unrest, and strengthen the bonds between citizenry and crown. You can easily imagine the scene: in this hall, festively decorated, a platform, an orchestra, an audience made up of the leading figures of the court, and you, impassive, on the throne, listening to every high note, every trill with the attention suitable in an impartial judge, until suddenly you raise your scepter and declare: "She is the one!"

How could you fail to recognize her? No voice could be less like those that usually perform for the king, in the halls illuminated by crystal chandeliers, among the potted plants with broad, flat palm-like leaves. You have been present at many concerts in your honor on the dates of glorious anniversaries; every voice aware of being heard by the king takes on a cold enamel, a glassy smugness. That one, on the contrary, was a voice that came from the shadow, happy to display itself without emerging from the darkness that hid it, casting a bridge toward every presence enfolded in the same darkness.

But are you sure that, before the steps of the throne, it would be the same voice? That it would not try to imitate the intonation of the court singers? That it would not be confused with the many voices you have become accustomed to hearing, with condescending approbation, as you follow the flight of a fly?

The only way to impel her to reveal herself would be an encounter with your true voice, with that ghost of your voice that you summoned up from the city's ternpest of sounds. It would suffice for you to sing, to release that voice you have always hidden from everyone, and she would immediately recognize you for the man you really are, and she would join her voice, her real voice, to yours.

Then, ah!, an exclamation of surprise would spread through the court: "His Majesty is singing. . . . Listen to how His Majesty sings. . . ." But the composure which is proper in listening to the king, whatever he says or does, would soon take over. Faces and gestures would express a complaisant and measured approval, as if to say: "His Majesty is graciously favoring us with a song. . . ." and all would agree that a vocal display is one of the sovereign's prerogatives (provided that they can then cover you with whispered ridicule and insults).

In short, it would be all very well for you to sing: no one would hear you, they would not hear you, your song, your voice. They would be listening to the king, in the way a king must be listened to, receiving what comes from above and has no meaning beyond the unchanging relationship between him who is above and those who are below. Even she, the sole addressee of your song, could not hear you: yours would not be the voice she hears; she would listen to the king, her body frozen in a curtsey, with the smile prescribed by protocol masking a preconceived rejection.

Your every attempt to get out of the cage is destined to fail: it is futile to seek yourself in a world that does not belong to you, that perhaps does not exist. For you there is only the palace, the great reechoing vaults, the sentries' watches, the tanks that crunch the gravel, the hurried footsteps on the staircase which each time could be those announcing your end. These are the only signs through which the world speaks to you; do not let your attention stray from them even for an instant; the moment you are distracted, this space you have constructed around yourself to contain and watch over your fears will be rent, torn to pieces.

Is it impossible for you? Are your ears deafened by new, unusual sounds? Are you no longer able to tell the uproar outside from that inside the palace? Perhaps there is no longer an inside and an outside: while you were intent on listening to voices, the conspirators have exploited the lapse of vigilance in order to unleash the revolt.

Around you there is no longer a palace, there is the night filled with cries and shots. Where are you? Are you still alive? Have you eluded the assassins who have burst into the throne room? Did the secret stairway afford you an avenue of escape?

The city has exploded in flames and shouts. The night has exploded, turned inside out. Darkness and silence plunge into themselves and throw out their reverse of fire and screams. The city crumples like a burning page. Run, without crown, without scepter; no one will realize that you are the king. There is no night darker than a night of fires. There is no man more alone than one running in the midst of a howling mob.

The night of the countryside keeps watch over the throes of the city. An alarm spreads with the shrieks of the nocturnal birds, but the farther it moves from the walls, the more it is lost among the rustlings of the usual darkness: the wind in the leaves, the flowing of the streams, the croaking of the frogs. Space expands in the noisy silence of the night, where events are dots of sudden din that flare up and die away; the crack of a broken bough, the squeaking of a dormouse when a snake comes into his hole, two cats in love, fighting, a sliding of pebbles beneath your fugitive steps.

You pant, you pant and under the dark sky only your panting is heard, the crackle of leaves beneath your stumbling feet. Why are the frogs quiet now? No, there they begin again. A dog barks. . . . Stop. The dogs answer one another from a distance. For some time you have been walking in thick darkness, you have lost all notion of where you might be. You prick up your ears. There is someone else panting like you. Where?

The night is all breathing. A low wind has risen as if from the grass. The crickets never stop, on all sides. If you isolate one sound from another, it seems to burst forth suddenly, very distinct; but it was also there before, hidden among the other sounds.

You also were there, before. And now? You could not answer. You do not know which of these breaths is yours. You no longer know how to listen. There is no longer anyone listening to anyone else. Only the night listens to itself.

Your footsteps reecho. Above your head there is no longer the sky. The wall you touch was covered with moss, with mold; now there is rock around you, bare stone. If you call, your voice also rebounds. Where? "Ohooo . . . Ohooo . . ." Perhaps you have ended up in a cave: an interminable cavern, an underground passage. . . .

For years you have had such tunnels dug under the palace, under the city, with branches leading into the open country. . . . You wanted to assure yourself the possibility of moving everywhere without being seen; you felt you could dominate your kingdom only from the bowels of the earth. Then you let the excavations crumble in ruins. And here you are, taking refuge in your lair. Or caught in your trap. You ask yourself if you will ever find the way to go out of here. Go out: where?

Knocking. In the stone. Muffled. Cadenced. Like a signal! Where does the rapping come from? You know that cadence. It is the prisoner's call! Answer. Rap on the wall yourself. Shout. If you remember rightly, the tunnel communicates with the cells of the political prisoners. . . .

He does not know who you are: liberator or jailer? Or perhaps one who has become lost underground, like him, cut off from the news of the city and of the battle on which his fate depends?

If he is wandering outside his cell, this is a sign that they came to remove his chains, to throw open the bars. They said to him: "The usurper has fallen! You will return to your throne! You will regain possession of the palace!" Then something must have gone wrong. An alarm, a counterattack by the royal troops, and the liberators ran off along the tunnels, leaving him alone. Naturally he got lost. Under these stone vaults no light arrives, no echo of what is happening up above.

Now you will be able to speak to each other, to recognize your voices. Will you tell him who you are? Will you tell him that you have recognized him as the man you have kept in prison for so many years? The man you heard cursing your name, swearing to avenge himself? Now you are both lost underground, and you do not know which of you is king and which, prisoner. It almost seems to you that, however it turns out, nothing changes: in this cellar you seem to have been sealed forever, sending out signals. . . . It seems to you that your fate has always been in suspense, like his. One of you will remain down here. . . . The other . . .

But perhaps he, down here, has always felt that he was up above, on the throne, with the crown on his head, and with the scepter. And you? Did you not feel always a prisoner? How can a dialogue be established between the two of you if each thinks he hears, not the words of the other, but his own words, repeated by the echo?

For one of you the hour of rescue is approaching, for the other, ruin. And yet that anxiety that never abandoned you seems now to have vanished. You listen to the echoes and the rustlings with no further need to separate them and decipher them, as if they made up a piece of music. A music that brings back to your memory the voice of the unknown woman. But are you remembering it or do you really hear it? Yes, it is she, it is her voice that forms that tune like a call under the rock vaults. She might also be lost, in this night like the world's end. Answer her, make yourself heard, send her a call, so that she can find her way in the darkness and join you. Why do you remain silent? Now, of all times, have you lost your voice?

There, another call rises from the darkness, at the point from which the prisoner's words came. It is an easily recognized call, which answers the woman, it is your voice, the voice you created to reply to her, drawing it from the dust of the city sounds, the voice you sent toward her from the silence of the throne room! The prisoner is singing your song, as if he had never done anything but sing it, as if it had never been sung by anyone else. . . .

She replies, in her turn. The two voices move toward each other, become superimposed, blend, as you had already heard them joined in the night of the city, certain that it was you singing with her. Now surely she has reached him, you hear their voices, your voices, going off together. It is useless for you to try to follow them: they are becoming a murmur, a whisper; they vanish.

If you raise your eyes, you will see a glow. Above your head the imminent morning is brightening the sky: that breath against your face is the wind stirring the leaves.

You are outside again, the dogs are barking, the birds wake, the colors return on the world's surface, things reoccupy space, living beings again give signs of life. And surely you are also here, in the midst of it all, in the teeming noises that rise on all sides, in the buzz of the electric current, the throb of the pistons, the clank of gears. Somewhere, in a fold of the earth, the city is reawakening, with a slamming, a hammering, a creaking that grows louder. Now a noise, a rumble, a roar occupies all space, absorbs all sighs, calls, sobs. . . .

August 1, 1984 Rome