Photisms

Juan Pablo Villalobos

It might not feel much like Halloween this year, but it is Halloween, so we’re celebrating with a spooky tale you can find in Issue 99. We promise it’s more treat than trick, so read on:

The chubby little boy remains impassive. Mamá and Papá have left the consulting room now, leaving him on his own, but even so he’s not fazed by the situation, he’s over there, just quietly sitting like it’s no big deal, in total control of the moment. Suddenly, before the psychiatrist can say anything, he raises his right arm with the index finger outstretched, as if asking permission to speak, but no, it’s nothing, his hand changes direction and moves to his head, plays with one of his ringlets, you can see from miles away it’s an unconscious movement, one that’s repeated a hundred times a day, because he’s not even paying attention, it’s as if he’s split into two and it’s another little boy who’s twisting his hair around his finger.

The doctor is putting some papers in order, probably the kid’s medical record, and after moving the first page from the end back to its rightful place at the beginning, he gives the stack of pages a sharp tap on the desk to bring them together. Two more taps. Finished. Now he’s ready to play his role of guardian of clear consciences: he half-closes his eyes to examine his little patient, doing so—naturally—with a scientific gaze, that is, stern, serene, very intelligent.

“Daniel,” the psychiatrist says, “do you know why your parents have brought you to see me?”    

The child moves his hand from his hair and places it on his right knee, let’s see now,  he hesitates, he still hasn’t decided what he’s going to do, mess around a bit or take it seriously; he purses his lips like a piglet and then realizes they’re both the same, whatever he does it will be exactly the same.

“Because I see green lights,” he replies nonchalantly, in a tone that suggests the conversation is over.

The doctor’s cell phone rings, instinctively he’s about to apologize and switch it off, but the patient is a child, so fuck it. It’s a message from his wife, the second one: “Red or green enchiladas?” he reads, and smiles at the coincidence. He nods almost imperceptibly to indicate to the little boy that he hasn’t forgotten he’s there and apologizes without apologizing, “just a minute,” he says, very stern, very grave, very much the psychiatrist with the frightfully ’80s tie. He starts tapping out his reply: “Green, and buy some Negra Modelo.” And he sends the message, quite satisfied; he’s hungry already, it’s one thirty, suddenly he really feels like enchiladas.

“Green lights, eh, and when do you see them? All the time? Can you see them now?” he says, as he checks if the tape recorder is working.

“If I saw them all the time I wouldn’t be able to see anything else, I’d be blind. I only see them every now and again,” the little boy replies straight away, without thinking, because it’s something that seems totally obvious to him.

“OK,” says the same man who poses in the graduation photo hanging on the wall, only twenty years older. “When do you see them, or rather, tell me this, when was the last time you saw them? Where were you? What were you doing?”

“I was in the park opposite my house, on the swings.” “Aaaaaaaaand?”  the doctor says, extending the “a” in invitation to his patient to continue his story, it’s the same as in any conversation, when one wants the other person to provide more details, it works exactly the same but in a scientific kind of way.

“And then I started to see little green lights and then everything went green and I suddenly couldn’t see anything and I fell off the swing.”

The psychiatrist knew this already, of course, it was what the parents told him, who were scared out of their wits because every time the child starts seeing green he ends up hurting himself, it’s lucky that up to now he hasn’t suffered any serious injuries, but who knows, Doctor, they told him, just think, one day he might get run over or fall off a cliff. Sure, what with the number of cliffs there are on the way from the house to his school, and then the ones between the house and the corner shop or the park. And the psychiatrist’s initial reaction was to recommend they take him to the ophthalmologist, but that was the first thing they did and it turned out that there was nothing abnormal with little Daniel’s sight, in fact the ophthalmologist suggested the chubby little kid might be lying, that there was no illness that made you see green.

“And what do you think these green light are?” the doctor ventures.

Always get the last word.

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“They’re photisms,” replies Daniel, putting his hand up to his hair again.

Photisms, photisms, the psychiatrist repeats in his head, the child’s parents hadn’t mentioned this, photisms, and nothing comes to mind, hmmm, he turns his head toward his little bookcase, will the word be in the dictionary? Hmmm, but of course he doesn’t get up to consult the dictionary, come on now, not in front of the child, what would he think, that he doesn’t know what photisms are?

And now his cell phone beeps again, “Just a moment,” the doctor says, “it’s an emergency, I’m sure you understand.” He reads the new message: “Actually you get the beers, I’m running late.” Fuck, thinks the psychiatrist, because he knows he’ll have to take a different route home to stop off at the shop, and it’s the exact time the school across the road finishes for the day, with its line of mothers in their double-parked cars: chaos, total chaos. Suddenly he has what he thinks is a brilliant idea, and replies to the message: “Find ‘photisms’ in encyclopaedia & call me with book in hand. URGNT.”

“Photisms, very interesting, very interesting, just a minute,” the doctor says, playing for time.

“Yes, photisms,” repeats Daniel, who is staring at the painting hanging on the wall to his left: it’s one of  those paintings you can buy in a department store, or even win as a prize in a darts competition at a local fair; it’s a landscape with a little cabin, a rushing river, and some snow-capped mountains in the background. The brushstrokes betray the fact it’s been mass-produced; there must be hundreds of identical paintings, though with slight variations due to the unrepeatable nature of every human activity, even if it’s copying the same landscape hundreds of times.

The doctor spreads out the pages of the chubby little kid’s notes, implying he’s looking for something; after a couple of minutes during which he pretends to read them he puts the pages back together again, this time with one hand, then opens a drawer in his desk and takes out a sheet at random from among the papers in there. It’s a cell phone bill that he puts back after verifying he sent 843 messages last month; he closes the drawer and looks up at the ceiling, his right hand stroking his chin. 

The telephone rings—finally!—the situation was becoming unbearable. “Speak,” the psychiatrist says, deep and loud, sounding very manly. Then he listens to the voice of his wife, the second one: “Pumpkin, I can’t look in the encyclopaedia because the pages are stuck together.” “I understand,” the doctor says, again deep and loud and sounding manly, “it’s an emergency, do whatever you have to.” It’s evident that at some point in his youth he was a member of a theater group. He turns his head to the child and gives him a stern look, as if he were reprimanding him, as if he were about to punish him, send him up to his room for 8,000 days. His woman again, the second wife: “No, pumpkin, I mean I can’t, when I try to open the P book the type and the photos peel off.” Peel off, this is the verb used by his second wife, who seems to think the words and photos in books are pasted in. “I understand, I understand,” the doctor repeats, this time in a tone at once thoughtful and  vague, a tone of looking for a solution to an incredibly complicated and nonexistent problem, “well, that’s that, we can sort it out later, thanks anyway.” He starts to take the phone away from his ear, the voice of his wife freezes him, “Did you see my message? It’s just I don’t have time now, pumpkin, they took ages at the bank, you bring the beers, please.” “All right,” he interrupts her and hangs up. He sits up a little straighter, goes back to his previous position in the chair, while concluding that surely the word photisms does not exist. He goes to restart the interview, but then hears a deep, loud, manly rumble coming from his guts, something like prrrrrrrr—what the fuck, such hunger! The child hears it and starts to laugh, at first under his breath, then he can’t hold back and bursts out laughing. The psychiatrist knows he has to say something, now, this minute! Who does this midget think he is? He must say something clever, stop the fat little jerk in his tracks.

“Look, Daniel, as I was saying, this photisms thing is very interesting, but I want you to be honest with me, alright?” Here he interjects a melodramatic pause, because he assumes the boy will nod in agreement, or say yes, or whatever; the kid does nothing except pick his nose. “Nevertheless, it’s not normal that you know this word, it’s not a children’s word, who told it to you? How did you learn it?”        

“No one told me,” Daniel replies, “it appeared in my head one day.”

“Are there any other words that have appeared like that?” the psychiatrist says, trying to investigate further, and he starts to scribble in a notebook on his desk, making an “I am taking scientific notes” face, and what he writes is: Personality disorder due to need for affection—absent father? Family Therapy.

“There’s a voice that keeps saying to me: see you in the non-world,” the chubby little kid replies.

The non-world, uh-oh, the non-world, the psychiatrist’s face has fallen, he’s even crossed out the lines he’s just written in his notebook, because this changes everything, yessiree, this completely changes everything.

“The non-world, mm-hmm,” stammers the doctor; with his left hand he touches the cell phone in the pocket of his white coat, with his right he feels the urge to pick up his pen and make another note, he picks it up, writes down “NON-WORLD” and doesn’t add anything—so irresponsible, leaving a colon there hanging like that, all on its own!

“What’s the non-world?” he asks just so as to say something, he’s like a hunter firing bullets everywhere and nowhere, a hunter who knows he’s being hunted.

“The non-world is where my angel lives, the other me,” Daniel replies, suddenly cold and dramatic, he doesn’t seem like the same carefree child of a few moments ago who laughed at the doctor, the muscles in his face are tense, there’s a unpleasant expression on his face, he doesn’t blink; it’s an unsavory image, the personification of the clichéd unhinged mystic. The psychiatrist can’t bear this vision, he looks away to the wall on the right, the boy’s left; there is his painting, the cabin, the swollen river, the snow-capped mountains, he perseveres in trying to make the landscape bring him back to a tangible reality, to this space in which the desk, the notebook, the chairs, the diploma, and the painting, and the world, yes, the world, all materialize, but it doesn’t work. He looks at his watch because he remembers it’s almost time for lunch, it’s a quarter to two, it makes more sense to call the parents in and invent some story for them. He’s about to say something to bring the session to a close, but the fatty gets there first.

“I can disappear, too, sometimes I go to the non-world, or I just disappear. I can do lots of things, if I want to I can go inside that painting, go and live in that cabin,” he says, pointing at the landscape the psychiatrist is still staring at.

“So you can disappear, huh?” the doctor replies sarcastically, at the same time as the surreal bubble bursts and he concentrates on rewriting the note he’d crossed out: Personality disorder due to need for affection—absent father? Family Therapy. He hasn’t underlined “Family Therapy” this time, not because he thinks it’s less important than before, it’s simply because of hunger and laziness, gastric trouble caused by the vision of the plate of green enchiladas.

His phone beeps again, another message from the psychiatrist’s wife, the second one: “Have you left yet? Get some crema, too.” The doctor is about to reply to the message, and he looks up from his phone first to inform the boy that they’ll carry on with their chat in a minute. However, when the psychiatrist looks toward the kid it turns out the kid is not there, the chair is empty, oh shit!

“Daniel?” the doctor says, as he bends down to look under the table, “Daniel?” he gets up to look all around the consulting room, although actually there’s nowhere to look, there’s no possible hiding place. Damn runt, thinks the psychiatrist, as he walks over to the door.

In the waiting room he sees the kid’s parents, who stand up, certain that the doctor is going to give them a diagnosis. Is little Daniel ill, or just a compulsive liar?

“Did you see Daniel come out?” the psychiatrist asks, although, judging by their reaction, he already knows the parents haven’t seen a thing. Then he has to go through the embarrassment of explaining to them that the child has escaped from the consulting room.

“What do you mean, escaped?” the father says, he’s become incredibly violent in three seconds, the question is already a threat in itself, “what the fuck are you trying to say? Danielito hasn’t left your room, we’ve been sitting here the whole time, outside the door, he hasn’t come out, we would have seen him, it’s impossible.”

Apart from the consulting room and the waiting room there’s only the receptionist’s desk, which has its back to the waiting room and faces the door to the street. The receptionist hasn’t seen anything, either, she’s sure the boy didn’t run out into the street through that door. They all go into the consulting room, although the doctor keeps assuring them that he’s not there, that there’s nowhere to hide, that he only took his eyes off the kid for a second, and that he couldn’t have escaped to the street from in here, because the windows are very high, out of the boy’s reach.

The psychiatrist tells the receptionist to inform the police, but the father gets there first, he’s talking furiously on his cell phone, gabbling out their address, the child’s full name, his age, that he has long hair and ringlets, that he’s fair-skinned, that he’s chubby, and describes in detail what he’s wearing. Immediately afterward he goes out into the street because the mother orders him to, “Quick, he must be nearby, he’ll get too far if you don’t hurry up.” The father keeps saying that it’s impossible, that Danielito never left the office, “Where can he be then?” the mother insists, “go and look for him, I’ll stay here.” Finally the father goes, cursing the doctor as he does so, “Son of a bitch! You son of a bitch! What have you done with my son?”

While they wait for the police, the psychiatrist explains what happened to the mother and to the receptionist, but he’s barely begun when two policemen arrive—so quick! So efficient! And they calm the mother down by telling her there’s a whole police squad combing the area, so the doctor starts again, relating his version of what happened. The policemen try to defuse the tension, their attitude is that of someone trying to give the impression that this is a very common situation: children go missing, yes, sometimes it happens, sometimes we find them around the corner, buying an ice cream, sometimes we don’t find them, you know! And then other times they get killed or raped, son-of-a! They don’t say this, obviously, so as not to scare the mother.

The psychiatrist gets to the pivotal moment in his tale, the little boy has said he can disappear, go to the non-world, go inside the painting. Ah, and he’s got proof! The tape recorder! He takes the machine out of his desk and rewinds the tape. After four attempts he finds the exact moment when the child says: I can disappear, too, sometimes I go to the non-world, or I just disappear, I can do lots of things, if I want to I can go inside that painting, go and live in that cabin. The mother’s shock turns to tears, it’s the voice of her little boy! She can’t bear it any longer, she starts to cry, a lot, she’s bawling, rivers of tears, where’s my son? Ay, ay!

“Has he disappeared before?”  the doctor asks when he sees the mother’s reaction, thinking it’s a recurring incident, sensing that here might be his salvation, the way to avoid responsibility.

“No! Never! What are you talking about?”

The psychiatrist’s cell phone rings, it’s the shrill voice of his wife, the second one, nagging him: “Pumpkin, where are you? The food’s getting cold.” The doctor hangs up, but the phone rings again right away. “Babe, don’t hang up on me! Where are you?” “I can’t talk now,” the psychiatrist says, moving away from the group a little, turning his back on them, “there’s a problem at the clinic, I’ll call you later,” and is about to hang up but something occurs to him, “Hey, dial your brother and tell him to call me, urgently, it’s urgent, get him to call me now.” “Jorge?” asks his wife, the second one, despite the fact she only has one brother, “What’s wrong? Why do you need him?” “I can’t talk, tell Jorge to call me now, this minute.” And he hangs up.

The psychiatrist turns back to the others and finds them all standing in front of the painting, staring at it, have they gone crazy?“ He’s probably gone into the cabin,” jokes one  of the policemen, but the other one squeezes his arm to shut him up. The mother moves closer and closer to the painting, her nose practically touching the canvas, she raises her right hand, moves it over to the cabin and yes, yes, she starts knocking at the door to the cabin with her index finger, knock, knock, knock. Pause. Knock, knock, knock. “Madam, please,” the doctor starts to protest, but she interrupts him, “Shut your lousy mouth, doctor.” Knock, knock, knock. They all look at the painting, even the psychiatrist. From the cabin, of course, there’s no answer.

The father returns with a promise from the police squad that they will find Danielito. “You’ll have to arrest him until they find my son,” he orders the policemen, pointing at the psychiatrist. “Are you all nuts? I haven’t done anything, the boy ran away,” the doctor defends himself hysterically, and just at this moment his phone rings again, this time it’s Jorge, his second wife’s brother. “Hey, what’s going on? What are you mixed up in?” The doctor briefly explains what’s going on, while the mother updates the father with the psychiatrist’s story. “Don’t move, man,” Jorge advises him, “I’m coming over there, but don’t move, don’t let them take you anywhere, it must be a setup, they’re going to blackmail you, or they’ll sue you and you’ll have to pay damages.” “What do you mean a setup? What about the boy?” the psychiatrist whispers. “The boy will turn up later, in a few hours, or days, it depends on what kind of bastards the parents are, how much money they want to get out of you. Don’t move, I’m on my way. Oh, and careful with the police, they’re probably in on it.”

The doctor hangs up and sees the father taking down the picture. “Hey, what are you doing? Leave the painting where it is!”

“We’re going to the police station, “the father announces, “I’m sure you can appreciate we’re not going to just leave the painting here.”

The policemen come over, one of them holding a pair of handcuffs, and he asks the doctor to turn around, while the other one orders him to remove his tie. “My tie?” “Take it the fuck off!” The policeman with the cuffs looks at the other one in surprise, asking for an explanation, to which the first one whispers, “It’s fucking cool, don’t you think?” He puts the tie in his pocket and the other policeman makes as if to handcuff the psychiatrist. “What are you doing? I haven’t done anything! How many times do I have to tell you! And I want you to identify yourselves! I want to see your badges, your ID!” “Against the wall and shut your trap!  My balls are my ID! Go on, hold them!” the first policeman shouts, grabbing the doctor’s forearm. “Leave me alone, I have a right to a lawyer, you can’t do anything until my lawyer gets here.” “A lawyer? Stop fucking around, doctor, here’s your lawyer!” and he slams the doctor against the wall and puts him in an arm lock. The second policeman contents himself with punching the doctor a couple of times in the ribs. “Don’t you realize how serious the situation is, doc? You could be accused of kidnapping, of a disappearance, of murder.” “I didn’t do anything, anything, I swear,” the psychiatrist repeats between sobs. His phone rings again, but he can’t answer it, it’s in the pocket of his white coat, from where the first policeman rescues it. He looks at the screen, “It must be your wife, doc,” and he laughs, “it says here you call her Silvita, how cute.” The two policemen laugh, the first one switches o the phone as they start pushing the psychiatrist toward the door. “Come on, you son of a bitch, fucking child rapist, move it, you damn pervert!” “Nancy!” the psychiatrist shouts, looking at the receptionist, “stay here, wait for my brother-in-law, tell him everything, and call my wife.”

The mother stares fixedly at the painting, which is now hanging from the father’s right hand. There’s still nothing happening in the cabin. In the background, the snow-capped mountains remain impassive. And down at the bottom, the fake, turbulent river continues on its course, too close to the cabin, in the mother’s opinion, who thinks you shouldn’t build a cabin so close to such a rough river. They start to follow the policemen.

“Careful!” the mother orders her husband, “careful! Easy, easy, don’t wave it around so much.”

Juan Pablo Villalobos is a Mexican author. His debut novel, Down the Rabbit Hole, was published by And Other Stories in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2011. He is also the author of Quesadillas (2011) and I’ll Sell You a Dog (2016). His fourth novel, I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me, won the Herralde Prize. He has lived in Mexico and Brazil, and currently resides in Spain with his wife and two children.

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