The Art Therapist’s Child

The first time I heard the child’s crying was on a Tuesday morning at the end of winter. It hadn’t rained for four months, and the dry Johannesburg air sparked with static, my every action accompanied by its own little shock. Doorknob, computer keyboard, kettle, each snapped their objection to my good-morning touch. My lips were painfully split, the skin on my arms and legs as scaly as the leathery skins of the skinks that lived in the fissures of my cracked veranda tiles. I’d woken late and managed to fumble a cup of coffee, still only half-dressed, when the phone rang with a pre-arranged call from a therapist in LA who had sent me two drawings for an opinion. His name, Dr Zane Peridone, brought to mind anti-depressants, but his voice was deep and resonant – I’d seldom heard a voice so deep. I put him on speaker and at the sound, Freddie-the-Fixer, my golden retriever-cross-mutt, rolled onto his back and bared his tummy as if expecting the American to appear and give it a rub.
‘Dr Redding?’ said Peridone.
‘Call me Scott.’ I shivered, wishing I’d pulled a sweater over my t-shirt before answering the call.
‘Sure, Scott thanks for agreeing to take a look,’ he said. ‘I know you get a lot of requests.’
‘Happy to. I have the drawings on the screen in front of me. The young man who drew them is a refugee?’
‘Yes, he’s suffering from traumatic amnesia and can’t remember anything about his old life. Any insights you can share from the drawings could help us re-connect him with his memories and his family.’
The sound of crying crept onto the edges of my awareness like a wind howling on some distant plain. I blocked it out and concentrated on speaking to the American. The first of the two drawings was simply a page split in two, the top half coloured blue, the lower half, brown.
‘The first drawing,’ I said, ‘the one done in coloured pencil, is suggestive to me of a field of some crop (wheat possibly) under clear skies. On the level of colour alone, brown symbolises earth, blue peace. It’s his dreamscape. Perhaps he grew up in the country — a rural setting where he felt anchored, happy. Without further information, it’s speculation of course, but it may give you some avenues to investigate.’
Gradually the crying swelled until my full attention tuned only to its monotonous notes. Not that it grew louder, rather that I let it in. At my feet, Freddie sat up and cocked his head. Dr Peridone was speaking. I tried to focus on his words.
‘… first drawing is peaceful, the second is anything but. The charcoal pencil, the heavy lines of the row of squares. What do they suggest to you?’
I said, ‘They may represent a building, perhaps an apartment block, blown apart. To me the top line suggests order, the partial squares and single lines beneath it, the random angles as if spinning in space, show chaos. It could be a literal building or symbolic of the loss of order and control in his life.’ Freddie went over to the French doors and whined. He returned to my side and pawed at my leg. Dr Peridone thanked me for my help.
‘One more thing worth mentioning,’ I said. ‘A square represents the heart in Islam. It may be relevant if your patient is Muslim — broken squares, broken hearts?’
I ended the call and walked outside, scattering skinks, the warmth of the morning sun welcome after the chill indoors. Even my tears had been desiccated by the dry air; no way to blink away the sand that seemed to film my eyeballs, the simple task of seeing made painful. It was almost September, almost spring, the rains could be a month away, or more. Too long. Once outside I couldn’t hear a thing. No crying. Only the mechanical churring of a crested barbet.
‘Did you hear what I heard, Freddie? Sounded like a kid in trouble. What d’you reckon boy?’ The Fixer looked uninterested and returned inside where he flopped down, sending one of last night’s beer cans clattering across the tiles. Like me, he was sleep-deprived, my lights and restlessness having disturbed him until 3am. I wondered if the crying had been real. Last night when I’d finally fallen asleep, I’d dreamed of my daughter. Perhaps it was her crying I’d remembered so vividly. The thought was a raw wound even after all this time. I pulled on a pair of Levis, stuck my face in a basin of cold water and tried to think about something (anything) else.*

A few days later, I was in my studio with the French doors open when I heard the crying again. It seemed to emanate from a neighbouring house. ‘There it is again, Freddie. Hear that?’ I grabbed my Ray Bans and went into the garden. The Fixer stayed inside and watched, nose in doorway, as I paced the length of my garden wall. A trained therapy dog, he knew the difference between on duty and off. The crying was loudest at the western end of the wall. The sound was high-pitched and melancholy, not signifying need — hunger, boredom, pain — I ran through a list in my mind and crossed these off. Rather it was the lament of some animal snared, hope of rescue abandoned after hours of struggle, a keening, containing a world of helplessness. It was making my head hurt and I needed it to stop.
The Fixer’s interest in the problem rose a notch or two when we took a stroll past the house I believed to be the source of the crying. An unscheduled afternoon walk was good incentive for him to show an interest. The house in question was a featureless bungalow, half of it painted a grubby beige, the paint cheap and flaking, the other half klinker-brick and the garden left to nature to sculpt. In short, a house much like all the others in the street.

15 thoughts on “The Art Therapist’s Child

  1. NobHobbit says:

    I like this. I like your writing, and the opening scene of a therapist at work was interesting. I hope it will play into the coming story somehow, and not just be a throw-away scene!

    Doorknob, computer keyboard, kettle, each snapped their objection to my good-morning touch. — I love this sentence. 🙂

    The crying child is a mystery, and so is how the actual crying crescendos and then disappears – leaving me to wonder if it’s a real kid, a ghost, or some kind of aural hallucination.

    The only place I got tripped up in your writing was in the final paragraph. First, the dog is staying inside, just watching from the doorway. Then abruptly, he is strolling past the house with Scott, his interest rising a notch. I’m also a little confused as to if they are still in the garden or not. It sounds more like they’ve gone out into the street. This may be because I don’t have a clear picture of the size of the garden, or what the wall looks like. I imagine something head-high at least, and solid, so I think that they must be somewhere else in order to see and describe the bungalow.

    That aside, I would definitely keep on reading. 🙂

    Best,
    Chelle

  2. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for the feedback. I re-read the last paragraph. I had thought it was clear that they went out into the street to walk past the house, but now I see how it could be confusing. Thanks. I will change the wording.

  3. Heidi Smit says:

    I am so sorry to say this but the title is rather off-putting for me. The LA connection..why..maybe all will be revealed later on..I just do not believe the continuation of the conversation while you hear a child crying like that.Especially when we read later on that there is a deceased? child. I like the dog but can he be a little less trained as a therapy dog? The house in question. I am not partial to this kind of language.And the conversation content about the art. No not interested. I see where you are going and I think it can be a good story. In my opinion, you must find the right depth to your scenes and lose the Therapy in the Title.
    Please do understand that I am not here to put you down or to be disrespectful to your hard work. I take it very very seriously.. All the best and good luck, Tobi Katz

  4. spicychilipepper says:

    This is so interesting. I love the idea of a character working in therapy. The themes are awfully relevant to modern times. Writing about the child and his therapy shows a different and very personal side to current events. I was able to see the story as you described it, everything seemed very realistic. I would love to read this book.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I appreciate the comments and I would far prefer honesty to politeness, Tobi. I hate the title too – just haven’t been able to think of a better one.

    • Heidi Smit says:

      HI Anonymous! It took me a while to get back to you. About the title..maybe something a little less literal. Like Hidden Colors or The Color of Tears or The Crayon the Dog and the Lost child..You see where I am getting at? Sometimes we need to play a little…And I am sure you will come up wth something far more relevant but you know the full story. Big smiley face here

  6. Tayci says:

    I really enjoyed your writing. I agree with Chelle. The dog is standing in the doorway while Scott is pacing the garden then Fixer is outside.

    I see how he thinks it’s just him hearing things with the crying. People do strange things sometimes.

    I’m not sure about the first sentence. Something is off to me, but not sure how. Maybe just start with describing the day, but it could just be me.

  7. Pam Portland (@TruckingWriter) says:

    I cannot really tell what’s gone on prior to this scene and why I should feel passionate about the main character, but, for better or worse, the interspersed comments about the crying were distrcting. This could be a good thing: maybe the main character is feeling equally distracted by it, obviously because he decides to go investigate.

    The imagery is strong, and living in a dry climate, I understand the curse of static electricity on everything. The clinical elements were believable and understandabale to a lay person like myself. Yet, I’m not particularly engrossed and excited about what comes next. Maybe there is an ingredient in this story that is missing, but in fairness, I cannot put my finger on it.

  8. Jennifer says:

    Thank you, Tammy. It is finished, so now I need to think of a better title and find an agent who feels the same way you do.

  9. Jryan says:

    I really enjoyed the analysis of the refugee’s art. I hope that this is central to the novel, since you’ve given it prominence at the beginning. Scott’s expertise becomes clear. You handled the description of the pictures very well, weaving it into Scott’s comments instead of describing it to us at length. My comment for improvement would be to eliminate the clichéd dialogue from Scott to the dog. “Did you hear what I heard? Sounds like a kid in trouble. What do you reckon, boy?” Try saying it out loud. Does it seem believable?

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