To whom – and for what – do our children pray? What do they ask for in their silent supplications? Do we really know what the little creatures who share our roof are thinking? Tying together familiar, realist themes: a mother’s serious illness, a father’s efforts to cheer up his son, and some LEGO kits, Jon Bilbao slowly weaves an anguished web of paranoia and fear. Fear of one’s own child, the little person you created. The suggestion of the supernatural lurks in the little gaps of a strange LEGO effigy of some weird, many-armed deity – which cannot be removed from the house. Just childish nonsense? But if that were true, who is this cruel creature I call my son? This is an extraordinary story that recalls Fabian Casas’ terrible line: “It’s like a law: everything that rots, forms a family.”
I should begin by apologizing for sending this letter out of the blue. At first, I thought I’d call on you at home so we could talk about all this face to face, but then I thought that this would be the best option. It will be far more comfortable for the both of us and allow me to choose my words properly. I trust that you’ll forgive my circumspection. Once you’ve read this and digested its contents, please don’t hesitate to get in touch via the number provided below, if you think it appropriate.
Next, I must apologize again, this time for beginning my story with the painful subject of the illness and death of my wife. I don’t know if you knew Sara. You must have seen one another when taking the children to and from school. I don’t know. Health permitting, Sara always took care of those things. If you were, indeed, acquainted and she mentioned you, I must have forgotten.
The illness wasn’t foreshadowed by any discomfort or symptoms; it was discovered during a routine gynaecological examination. By then the disease had spread extensively, even though Sara said that she felt fine. From then on, however, things moved rapidly. She had to quit her job and focus on her recovery. We called it her “recovery”; the doctors called it “treatment”, a far less compromising term.
We didn’t hide what was going on from our son, but neither did we tell him how serious things were. He was ten years old, old enough to know that something was wrong. Sara’s physical decline soon began to become apparent, and she couldn’t pay him as much attention as she had before. Then she couldn’t pay him any attention at all. I asked for leave from work to take care of her and spend as much time with her as possible.
I also took care of our son, as far as my spirits and capacity allowed. At first, he didn’t make any trouble. He’s always been a quiet, introverted child with a tendency to get caught up in personal fantasies. He likes to read and draw and can entertain himself in his room hours.
I spent time with him every afternoon, visiting him in his room. I wanted to let him know that we still cared about him, regardless of what was going on. I asked him about school. But he wasn’t easy to talk to. It was almost impossible to get him to say more than one sentence at a time. Soon, neither of us knew what to say, and we both stopped talking. I looked for excuses to stay in the room, but it must have been obvious that I wanted to get out of there, and I think he preferred to be alone.
When I was a boy I loved playing with building sets, and I still enjoy it. Well, not so much any more.
One day, as I was coming back home from the pharmacy, I stopped at a toyshop and bought my son a Lego kit. With the bricks contained inside he could build a dumper truck.
He received the gift without any sign of excitement – that’s pretty much his style. He opened the box on the table in his room and looked at the bricks as though he didn’t know what to do with them. I suggested that we could build the truck together and, worried that he’d refuse, got to it without waiting for a response. I did most of the work, but I explained each step as I went, showing him the picture on the instructions. It was a nice truck. The back tilted to unload its cargo. I went into the kitchen and filled it with rice, as if the vehicle were transporting gravel. I asked my son if he liked it, and he said that he did.
The next day, when I went into his room, the Lego truck was still on the table, although it had been moved into a corner. I asked him if he wanted to build something else – the instructions offered several different, less exciting alternatives that could be made from the same bricks. I had to insist to make him agree. We took the truck apart and chose one of the alternatives. This time he was more involved. In fact, he did almost everything. Instructions in hand, I told him what to do.
We got into the habit of making things together. I bought him one or two Lego kits every week. As we put the bricks together we chatted a little, but not much. Following the precedent of the dumper, I brought him some more construction vehicles – a steamroller, a crane, a digger – then we moved on to architectural replicas. In a toyshop in town I found a replica of Fallingwater, the house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. And then the Guggenheim Museum and the Empire State Building in New York. It got so that I started to look forward eagerly to our time together.
One afternoon I went into his bedroom and was surprised to find that he was building something on his own. Usually I had to ask him once or twice to stop what he was doing so we could start playing with the Lego. However, that afternoon he’d put together a big pile of bricks from all the boxes I’d given him and was building something I couldn’t identify. He was working without any help from instructions, concentrating so hard that he didn’t even notice I was there. I decided not to bother him. That day Sara was suffering more than usual, and I thought it best to be with her.
Sara’s condition grew worse over the next few days, so I was barely able to spend any time with the boy, who stayed in his room almost the whole time when he was at home. On my brief visits I saw that he was continuing with his project. He didn’t seem to be making anything recognizable; it was just an accumulation of bricks, like a tower branching out in different directions without any appreciable plan or function. The colours of the bricks didn’t seem to follow any kind of pattern either, and the random mixture made the construction even more ugly and disconcerting.
Sara’s condition grew so critical that she had to be admitted to hospital. My mother came to look after the boy at home. Focusing on being with Sara, I barely saw him. My wife died a week later.
The next few days, although crucial to the narrative thread of this letter, are too painful to remember.
During that time, whatever my son was building stayed on the table in his room. You couldn’t miss it; it was half a metre high and just as wide. Its cross-section was more or less circular; it was a squat-looking construction.
I ignored it. I thought that the time when we played with Lego was now behind us, like so much else. I took it for granted that he felt the same way, and it was only still there because it was too much work to take that many bricks apart.
I went back to work. I had to keep busy. Meanwhile, my son grew more and more introverted. I was aware of this but didn’t feel strong enough to do anything about it. I would visit him in his room, sit down in front of him, and we’d exchange a few words. I’d stroke his head like someone cautiously dusting off a lamp found in an attic, wary in case a genie popped out. I’m not trying to excuse myself.
Given the situation you’ll understand how happy I was to get home and find him playing with another boy, someone from school. I hadn’t seen my son so happy for weeks. They were playing with the Lego construction, adding new bricks. I didn’t ask where they’d got them. I could hear them energetically chatting from the hall.
The next day my son was playing on his own again. I asked him about his friend, and he said that he had a karate class. A few days later, when I asked him the same question, he just shrugged. I didn’t ask again.
A little later, however, another boy, another friend from school, came over to play. They were playing with the Lego construction, too. The new friend was adding bricks he took out of a crumpled supermarket bag. He was obediently putting them where my son told him. Like the previous boy, he only came to our house once. He added the pieces he’d brought, and I never saw him again.
There were more visits, and they were all just as fleeting. All the boys brought bricks. Some of them brought whole boxes, others just a few they had in their pockets.
I asked whether they wouldn’t have trouble telling which belonged to whom when they took apart whatever they were building. My son looked at me as though he hadn’t thought of it, but he said he wasn’t sure. I asked if they were trying to see how far they could go, adding more and more bricks, and he said that was exactly what they were doing.
A few days later I went into my son’s room when he wasn’t at home. I needed a pen and thought I might find one among his things.
The Lego construction took up the entire table and was now over a metre high. I have to admit that it was quite impressive. I knocked into it as I searched through drawers. It would have been hard not to. Several limbs branched out from the core structure, some of them right over the edge of the table. I bumped into one of them, one of the upper, more recent parts of the construction. The limb came off and fell to the ground. I hurriedly picked it up, but before reattaching it something caught my eye.
A number of the bricks where the branch had been attached to the construction had also pulled away, revealing an empty space a little larger than a matchbox inside the main body of the piece. There was something inside. I had to take off a few more bricks to get it out. It was a piece of paper that had been folded and then folded again. I unfolded it. It was a page taken from a notebook. On the upper part it read: I WANT A NEW WATCH. Underneath was a drawing of a digital watch with a lot of buttons. It was a child’s handwriting. The drawing had been done in crayon. The wish was underlined several times, and lines radiated out from it and the watch as though they were shining. It wasn’t my son’s handwriting and the drawing wasn’t by him either. He could draw much better than that. I thought that the author must have been one of the children who had come by recently.
I carefully dismantled other sections of the construction in search of more inner chambers. I found two, with their corresponding pieces of folded paper: I WANT TO BE TALLER and I WANT PEOPLE TO STOP LAUGHING AT ME. Both requests were accompanied by a drawing. The first was of a kid with extraordinarily long legs, and the second was another kid with a wide back and disproportionately large fists. At his feet were other smaller kids the size of ants. Both also had yellow and orange lines radiating out around the words and drawings. The handwriting on each was distinct. Neither was my son’s.
I saw it as a game. Kids’ stuff. I did things like that when I was little. Girls especially liked that kind of thing. They wrote down wishes and put them in little boxes or bottles and buried them beneath trees.
I decided not to go on looking. I would have risked being unable to put it back together again. I put the pieces of paper back into their secret chambers and reassembled the broken pieces.
Over the next few weeks, every time a child turned up at my house bearing new offerings of Lego and a folded piece of paper in his pocket, I amused myself by guessing what he was wishing for. Not to have to wear glasses? For his parents to get him nicer clothes? Smaller ears?
When my son was out, I would take apart the latest additions to look for the wishes. Sometimes my guesses had been right. But sometimes I was way off: I WANT TO SEE ALL THE WOMAN I WANT NAKED; I WISH PEOPLE DIDN’T TALK SO LOUD.
But it was always kids’ stuff. I didn’t worry about it.
I started to worry when a boy came over who didn’t just add new bricks to the construction and disappear like the others: he started to visit regularly. I saw him almost every day. He always brought new offerings of additional bricks. The boy was tall for his age, quiet and polite. I wasn’t surprised that he and my son got on well.
As I’m sure you’ll have guessed by now, that boy was your son and also the reason I’m sending this letter.
Several days passed before I had a chance to get into my son’s room, dismantle some of the construction and read the new wishes. There was only one. I assumed that it had been left by your son.
The piece of paper said: I WANT MY PARENTS TO DIE. The attached drawing was a perfect illustration of these words: two dismembered bodies, heads and limbs separated from their torsos, lots of blood and the usual lines radiating out from everything. An explanatory caption was beneath the head with longer hair, MUM, while DAD was written underneath the other.
Now I hope you’ll understand my decision to write you this letter instead of seeing you in person. At this point, after what I’ve just said, you’d probably have been incredulous and scandalized and asked me to stop. You would have thrown me out of the house without wanting to hear another word, which would have been an understandable reaction. At best you’d have asked for further explanations, which I can’t give you. But, then again, in your indignation you might have stopped reading, crumpled up these pages and thrown them away. But there’s also the chance, and I hope this is true, that once your anger has passed your curiosity will spur you to read the rest of what I have to say.
That same night, after dinner, I spoke to my son. I told him that I’d noticed that a boy was coming over more regularly. I asked him who he was. He gave the usual answer: a boy from school. He added that they weren’t really friends, they just played together. I asked him if he’d ever been to his friend’s house, and he said that he hadn’t. As we spoke, he was flipping through a comic. He delayed his answers a few beats, as though he had to think them over or just wasn’t interested in our conversation. I said that, although he hadn’t been to his house, he must know his parents. Apparently not. I asked him if his playmate ever spoke about them. Either he didn’t or my son couldn’t remember. I asked him if he’d ever seen them. Now the answer was affirmative. He’d seen them a few times when they picked their son up from school. Sometimes it was the father, sometimes the mother. I asked him what they were like. My son shrugged. All he said was that they looked normal.
I mulled his answer over. He went on reading his comic. I started to get angry, sick of this business. He must have noticed because I caught him glancing at me. Then he got up to leave the room. I told him not to move. I asked him once more what they were building, and he told me the same thing as he had before: he didn’t know what it was, just a game where they added as many bricks as they could. Then I asked him, not bothering to hide my annoyance, how long this game was going to last. He looked at me in confusion. He didn’t seem to know. How will you know when it’s finished? I asked him. How will you know when you don’t have to add any more bricks? I told him that I wanted an answer, but he just looked at me in silence. Then I told him that I didn’t like his game, that I was sick of it and ordered him to dismantle it. He moaned and refused to move. He asked me if he couldn’t keep it a little longer. I asked him how much longer and why? He said a few days more.
Of course, I said no. I told him to start taking it apart that instant.
He shut himself in his room. A little later I came to tell him that it was time for bed. I found him sitting in front of the table with a Lego brick in his hands. He was mumbling, staring hard at the construction. He’d taken apart two of the extremities and part of a third. The central section, where the wishes were hidden, was still intact. When I complained that that was all he’d done he said that it was harder than it looked, some of the pieces were glued together and it was hard to prise them apart. I told him to brush his teeth and go to bed.
The next morning I called work to say that I’d be late. I waited until the boy left for school and went into his room. I was going to dismantle it myself.
It took me much longer than I thought. It turned out that some pieces did, indeed, seem to have been glued to each other. I gathered all the wishes together, planning to get rid of them later. The bricks started to form a pile on the carpet in the middle of the room.
Finally, I got to the lower section, made with the Lego bricks I’d bought. And then I found another piece of paper, one I hadn’t seen before. The handwriting on this piece of paper was my son’s. It read: I WISH THAT MY MUM WOULD JUST FUCKING DIE AND GET IT OVER WITH. I’d rather not describe the picture that accompanied these words. As I said, my son has a talent for drawing.
This wish, the first one, was buried underneath lots and lots of bricks brought by other children. I read it several times. Then I put it away and finished dismantling the construction. Actually, I didn’t dismantle it. I threw it against the wall, again and again, until it came apart.
I threw away all the wishes except my son’s. Now I realize that I should have kept the one made by your son, but I hope that you’ll trust me regarding its contents.
When my son came back from school that afternoon I was waiting for him. I let him go up to his room and a moment later I followed him. He was standing in the threshold, staring at the pile of Lego bricks on the carpet. I told him that I’d saved him the trouble of dismantling it. Confounding my expectations, he seemed calm. I asked him if he minded what I’d done, and he mumbled that he didn’t. Then he asked if that was everything, pointing at the bricks. I said, of course that was everything. What else could there be? He stared at me and repeated his question. I told him that the pile contained everything that had been in the construction. It was all there. He looked thoughtfully at the bricks again and nodded. I’ll pick them up later, he said.
Why would he be upset? I hadn’t destroyed anything important, a simple totem to which he and the other children, including your son, had dedicated their wishes. My act was no more significant than ripping up a postcard of the Virgin Mary.
Now you’ll understand why I needed to tell you this. I am absolutely certain that neither you nor your husband deserve what your son has wished on you, just as Sara didn’t deserve it. Because you’re normal, just like her and just like me.