Down the Rabbit Hole: A Novelby Juan Pablo Villalobos
"A brief and majestic debut." Matías Néspolo, El Mundo
Tochtli lives in a palace. He loves hats, samurai, guillotines, and dictionaries, and what he wants more than anything right now is a new pet for his private zoo: a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. But Tochtli is a child whose father is a drug baron on/i>/i>/b>/b>
"A brief and majestic debut." Matías Néspolo, El Mundo
Tochtli lives in a palace. He loves hats, samurai, guillotines, and dictionaries, and what he wants more than anything right now is a new pet for his private zoo: a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. But Tochtli is a child whose father is a drug baron on the verge of taking over a powerful cartel, and Tochtli is growing up in a luxury hideout that he shares with hit men, prostitutes, dealers, servants, and the odd corrupt politician or two. Long-listed for The Guardian First Book Award, Down the Rabbit Hole, a masterful and darkly comic first novel, is the chronicle of a delirious journey to grant a child's wish.
“Perfectly formed . . . Although easily devoured in one sitting, this clever little book is to be contemplated at length afterwards.” The Guardian
“Showing how a child absorbs violence without awareness that something is wrong is a tricky endeavor. Mr. Villalobos nails it.” Susannah Meadows, The New York Times
“Down the Rabbit Hole is a miniature high-speed experiment with perspective . . . A deliberate, wild attack on the conventions of literature.” Adam Thirlwell
“Juan Pablo Villalobos brilliantly encapsulates the chaos of a lawless existence in which, under the sway of drug lords, anything might happen and everything goes . . . Down the Rabbit Hole is an astonishing debut.” Lucy Popescu, The Independent
“If you're going to have an imprisoned child narrate a novel, then not so much as a word should be out of place. There are no such slips in Juan Pablo Villalobos's debut novella. We have here a control over the material which is so tight it is almost claustrophobic . . . This is a novel about failing to understand the bigger picture, and in its absence we can see it more clearly.” Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian, Choice of the Week
“Villalobos creates Tochtli's half-corrupt, half-innocent world . . . with a brilliant, tragi-comic light touch.” Jane Shilling, Daily Mail
“Juan Pablo Villalobos has done a masterful job creating a child narrator . . . Down the Rabbit Hole is, on the surface, innocent, clever and lovable, but its implications are deeply disturbing . . . [it] is a remarkable reflection on the uncontrollable narco violence that defines contemporary Mexico. And it's an absolute must read.” The Coffin Factory
“The riveting voice of Tochtli grasps our hearts as we realize that this is a world where even fate can be governed by power. In this miasma of pathos and politics, Down the Rabbit Hole brilliantly incorporates dreams, loyalty and the loss of innocence.” Alice Tao, The Houston Chronicle
“With this book we have discovered Juan Pablo Villalobos, a linguistic virtuoso able to penetrate the elusive world of literature, shedding light on many of its mysteries.” José Antonio Aguado, Diari de Terrassa
“With Down the Rabbit Hole, Juan Pablo Villalobos has made a dramatic entrance into the literary world. It is a book that must be read for its great aesthetic value and darkly humorous tone. A book that throws a clear light on a dark subject.” Teresa García Díaz, Amerika
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Read an Excerpt
Some people say I’m precocious. They say it mainly because they think I know difficult words for a little boy. Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic, and devastating. There aren’t really that many people who say I’m precocious. The problem is I don’t know that many people. I know maybe thirteen or fourteen people, and four of them say I’m precocious. They say I look older. Or the other way around: that I’m too little to know words like that. Or back-to-front and the other way around, sometimes people think I’m a dwarf. But I don’t think I’m precocious. What happens is I have a trick, like magicians who pull rabbits out of hats, except I pull words out of the dictionary. Every night before I go to sleep I read the dictionary. My memory, which is really good, practically devastating, does the rest. Yolcaut doesn’t think I’m precocious either. He says I’m a genius, he tells me:
“Tochtli, you’re a genius, you little bastard.”
And he strokes my head with his fingers covered in gold-and-diamond rings.
Anyway, more people say I’m odd: seven. And just because I really like hats and always wear one. Wearing a hat is a good habit immaculate people have. In the sky there are pigeons doing their business. If you don’t wear a hat you end up with a dirty head. Pigeons have no shame. They do their dirty business in front of everyone, while they’re flying. They could easily do it hidden in the branches of a tree. Then we wouldn’t have to spend the whole time looking at the sky and worrying about our heads. But hats, if they’re good hats, can also be used to make you look distinguished. That is, hats are like the crowns of kings. If you’re not a king you can wear a hat to be distinguished. And if you’re not a king and you don’t wear a hat you end up being a nobody.
I don’t think I’m odd for wearing a hat. And oddness is related to ugliness, like Cinteotl says. What I definitely am is macho. For example: I don’t cry all the time because I don’t have a mum. If you don’t have a mum you’re supposed to cry a lot, gallons of tears, two or three gallons a day. But I don’t cry, because people who cry are faggots. When I’m sad Yolcaut tells me not to cry, he says:
“Chin up, Tochtli, take it like a man.”
Yolcaut is my daddy, but he doesn’t like it when I call him Daddy. He says we’re the best and most macho gang for at least eight kilometers. Yolcaut is a realist and that’s why he doesn’t say we’re the best gang in the universe or the best gang for 8,000 kilometers. Realists are people who think reality isn’t how you think it is. Yolcaut told me that. Reality is like this and that’s it. Tough luck. The realist’s favorite saying is you have to be realistic.
I think we really are a very good gang. I have proof. Gangs are all about solidarity. So solidarity means that, because I like hats, Yolcaut buys me hats, lots of hats, so many that I have a collection of hats from all over the world and from all the different periods of the world. Although now more than new hats what I want is a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. I’ve already written it down on the list of things I want and given it to Miztli. That’s how we always do it, because I don’t go out much, so Miztli buys me all the things I want on orders from Yolcaut. And since Miztli has a really bad memory I have to write lists for him. But you can’t buy a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus that easily, in a pet shop. The biggest thing they sell in a pet shop is a dog. But who wants a dog? No one wants a dog. It’s so hard to get a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus that it might be the only way to do it is by going to catch one in Liberia. That’s why my tummy is hurting so much. Actually my tummy always hurts, but recently I’ve been getting cramps more often.
I think at the moment my life is a little bit sordid. Or pathetic.
* * *
I nearly always get on well with Mazatzin. He only annoys me when he’s strict and makes me stick to our study plan rigidly. Mazatzin, by the way, doesn’t call me Tochtli. He calls me Usagi, which is my name in Japanese, because he loves everything from the empire of Japan. What I really like about the empire of Japan are the samurai films. I’ve seen some of them so many times I know them off by heart. When I watch them I go on ahead and say the samurai’s conversations out loud before they do. And I never get it wrong. That’s because of my memory, which really is almost devastating. One of the films is called Twilight of the Samurai and it’s about an old samurai who teaches the way of the samurai to a little boy. There’s one bit where he makes the boy stay still and mute for days and days. He says to him: “The guardian is stealthy and knows how to wait. Patience is his best weapon, like the crane who does not know despair. The weak are known by their movement. The strong by their stillness. Look at the devastating sword that knows not fear. Look at the wind. Look at your eyelashes. Close your eyes and look at your eyelashes.” It’s not just this film I know off by heart, I know lots more, four.
One day, instead of teaching a lesson, Mazatzin told me his life story and it’s really sordid and pathetic. What happened is that he used to do really good business in TV advertising. He earned millions of pesos by making up adverts for shampoo and fizzy drinks. But Mazatzin was always sad, because he’d actually studied to be a writer. This is where it gets sordid: someone earning millions of pesos being sad because they’re not a writer. That’s sordid. And so in the end, because he was so sad Mazatzin went to live very far away, in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, on top of a mountain I think. He wanted to sit down and think and write a book about life. He even took a computer with him. That’s not sordid, but it is pathetic. The problem was that Mazatzin didn’t feel inspired and meanwhile his business partner, who was also his best friend, scammed him out of his millions of pesos. He wasn’t a best friend at all but a traitor.
That’s when Mazatzin came to work for us, because Mazatzin is educated. Yolcaut says that educated people are the ones who think they’re great because they know lots of things. They know things about science, like the fact that pigeons transmit disgusting diseases. They also know things about history, such as how the French love cutting the heads off kings. That’s why educated people like being teachers. Sometimes the things they know are wrong, like if you want to write a book you have to go and live in a cabin in the middle of nowhere on top of a mountain. That’s what Yolcaut says, that educated people know lots of things about books, but nothing at all about life. We live in the middle of nowhere too, but we don’t do it for inspiration. We do it for protection.
Anyway, since I can’t go to school, Mazatzin teaches me things from books. At the moment we’re studying the conquest of Mexico. It’s a fun topic, with war and blood and dead people. The story goes like this: On one side there were the kings and queens of the Spanish empire and on the other side there were the Indians who lived in Mexico. Then the kings and queens of Spain wanted to be the kings and queens of Mexico, too. So they came and they started killing all the Indians, but only to scare them and make them accept their new kings. Well, the truth is they didn’t even kill some of the Indians, they just burned their feet. This whole story makes Mazatzin furious, because he wears calico shirts and leather sandals as if he was an Indian. And he starts with one of his lectures. He says:
“They stole our money, Usagi, they plundered our country!”
It’s almost as if the dead Indians were his cousins or his uncles. Pathetic. By the way, the Spanish don’t like cutting the heads off kings. They still have living kings and queens with their heads stuck on their shoulders. Mazatzin showed me a photo in a magazine. That’s really pathetic, too.
* * *
One of the things I’ve learned from Yolcaut is that sometimes people don’t turn into corpses with just one bullet. Sometimes they need three or even fourteen bullets. It all depends where you aim them. If you put two bullets in their brain they’ll die for sure. But you can put up to 1,000 bullets in their hair and nothing will happen, although it must be fun to watch. I know all this from a game Yolcaut and I play. It’s a question-and-answer game. One person says a number of bullets in a part of the body and the other one answers: alive, corpse, or too early to tell.
“One bullet in the heart.”
“Thirty bullets in the little toenail of the left foot.”
“Three bullets in the pancreas.”
“Too early to tell.”
And we carry on like that. When we run out of body parts we look up new ones in a book that has pictures of all of them, even the prostate and the medulla oblongata. Speaking of the brain, it’s important to take off your hat before you put bullets into somebody’s brain, so it doesn’t get stained. Blood is really hard to get out. This is what Itzpapalotl, the maid who does the cleaning in our palace, always says.
Yes, our palace: Yolcaut and I are the owners of a palace and we’re not even kings. The thing is we have a lot of money. A huge amount. We have pesos, which is the money of Mexico. We also have dollars, which is the money of the United States. And we also have euros, which is the money of the countries and kingdoms of Europe. I think we have thousands of millions of all three kinds, although the 100,000-dollar bills are the ones we like the most. And as well as money we have all the jewels and the gems. And lots of safes with secret combinations. That’s why I don’t know very many people, maybe thirteen or fourteen. Because if I knew more people they’d steal our money or they’d scam us like they did to Mazatzin. Yolcaut says we have to protect ourselves. Gangs are about this, too.
The other day a man I didn’t know came to our palace and Yolcaut wanted to know if I was macho or not. The man’s face was covered in blood and, the truth is, I was a bit scared when I saw him. But I didn’t say anything, because being macho means you’re not scared and if you are scared you’re a faggot. I stood there very solemnly while Miztli and Chichilkuali, who are the guards in our palace, gave him some devastating blows. The man turned out to be a faggot because he started to scream and shout, Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me! He even wet his pants. The good thing is that I did turn out to be macho and Yolcaut let me go before they turned the faggot into a corpse. They definitely killed him, because later I saw Itzpapalotl go past with her mop and bucket. I don’t know how many bullets they put in him though. I’d say at least four in the heart. If I counted dead people I’d know more than thirteen or fourteen people. Seventeen or more. Twenty, easily. But dead people don’t count, because the dead aren’t people, they’re corpses.
There are actually lots of ways of making corpses, but the most common ones are with orifices. Orifices are holes you make in people so their blood comes out. Bullets from pistols make orifices and knives can make orifices, too. If your blood comes out there’s a point when your heart or your liver stops working. Or your brain. And you die. Another way of making corpses is by cutting, which you can also do with knives or with machetes and guillotines. You can make little cuts or big ones. If they’re big they separate the body parts and make corpses in little pieces. The most normal thing to do is to cut off the head, although, actually, you can cut anything. It’s because of the neck. If we didn’t have a neck it would be different. It might be normal to cut bodies in half down the middle so as to have two corpses. But we have a neck and this is a really big temptation. Especially for French people.
* * *
To be honest, sometimes our palace doesn’t look like a palace. The problem is it’s really big and there’s no way of keeping it immaculate. For a long time Itzpapalotl has been wanting Yolcaut to hire one of her nieces to help her with the cleaning. Itzpapalotl says she’s trustworthy, but Yolcaut doesn’t want any more people in our palace. Itzpapalotl grumbles because our palace has ten rooms: my bedroom, Yolcaut’s bedroom, the hat room, the room Miztli and Chichilkuali use, Yolcaut’s business room, and five more empty rooms we don’t use. And then as well as that there’s the kitchen, the living room with the armchairs, the TV room, the cinema room, my games room, Yolcaut’s games room, Yolcaut’s office, the inside dining room, the dining room out on the terrace, the small dining room, five bathrooms we use, two we don’t, the gym, the sauna, and the swimming pool.
Miztli says Yolcaut is paranoid and that this is a problem. The problem has to do with keeping the palace clean and also with Miztli’s time off. Because Miztli and Chichilkuali are in charge of protecting our palace with their rifles twenty-four hours a day. Twenty-four hours means that sometimes Miztli doesn’t sleep and other times Chichilkuali doesn’t sleep. Even though we have a really high wall to protect us. And even though on top of the wall there are bits of glass and barbed wire and an alarm with a laser beam that sometimes makes a noise when a bird flies close to it. And even though we live in the middle of nowhere.
* * *
Around our palace we have a gigantic garden. It’s looked after by Azcatl, who is mute and spends the whole day surrounded by the noise of the machines he uses. The noise is deafening if you go really close. Azcatl has machines to cut the grass, machines to cut the weeds, and machines to cut the trees and the bushes. But his main enemy is the weeds. The truth is Azcatl is losing the battle, because our garden is always full of weeds. By the way, Liberian pygmy hippopotamuses are silent machines that devour weeds. That’s what’s called being an herbivore, a plant-eater.
In the garden, opposite the dining room on the terrace, we also have cages with our animals, which are divided into two groups: the birds and the big cats. For birds we have eagles, falcons, and a cage full of parakeets and brightly colored parrots, macaws, and that sort of thing. For cats we have a lion in one cage and two tigers in another. On the same side as the tigers there’s a space where we’re going to put the cage for our Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. Inside the cage there’ll be a pond, but it won’t be a deep pond, it’ll just be for squelching around in the mud. Liberian pygmy hippopotamuses aren’t like other hippopotamuses, which like to live submerged in the water. This is all going to be arranged by Itzcuauhtli, who looks after our animals: he gives them their food, cleans their cages, and gives them medicine when they get ill. Itzcuauhtli could tell me lots of things about animals, like how to make them better and things like that. But he doesn’t tell me anything: he’s mute, too.
I know a lot of mute people: three. Sometimes, when I tell them something, they look as if they want to talk and they open their mouths. But they stay quiet. Mutes are mysterious and enigmatic. The thing with silence is you can’t give explanations. Mazatzin thinks the opposite: he says you can learn a lot by being silent. But those are ideas from the empire of Japan that he loves so much. I think the most enigmatic and mysterious thing in the world must be a Japanese mute.
* * *
Some days everything is disastrous. Like today, when I got the stabbing pain in my belly again. It’s a sharp stab that feels like you’re being electrocuted. Once I stuck a fork in an electric socket and electrocuted my hand a little bit. The stabbing is the same, but in my stomach.
To comfort me Yolcaut gave me a new hat for my collection: a three-cornered one. I have lots of three-cornered hats, eleven. Three-cornered hats are hats shaped like a triangle with a very small crown. I have three-cornered hats from France, from the kingdom of United, and from the country of Austria. My favorite is a French one from a revolutionary army. At least that’s what it said in the catalog. I like French people because they take off the crown before they cut off their kings’ heads. That way the crown doesn’t get dented and you can keep it in a museum in Paris or sell it to someone with lots of money, like us. The new three-cornered hat is from the kingdom of Sweden and it has three little red balls, one on each point. I love three-cornered hats, because they’re mad soldiers’ hats. You put one on and you feel like running off all on your own to invade the nearest kingdom. But today I didn’t feel like invading countries or starting wars. Today was a disastrous day.
In the afternoon Mazatzin didn’t give me any homework and let me research a subject of my choice. It’s something we do sometimes, mainly when I’m ill and find it hard to pay attention. I researched the country of Liberia. According to the encyclopedia, Liberia was founded in the nineteenth century by people who used to work as slaves in the country of the United States. They were African American people. Their bosses set them free and they went to live in Africa. The problem was that there were already other people living there, the African people. And so the African American people formed the government of the country of Liberia and the African people didn’t. That’s why they spend their whole time fighting wars and killing each other. And now they’re all pretty much dying of hunger.
It seems like the country of Liberia is a disastrous country. Mexico is a disastrous country, too. It’s such a disastrous country that you can’t get hold of a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. Actually, that’s what you call being a third-world country.
* * *
Politicians are people who make complicated deals. And they’re not even precocious people, quite the opposite. That’s what Yolcaut says, that to earn millions of pesos you don’t need to repeat the word democracy so many times. Today I met the fourteenth or fifteenth person I know and he was a politician called the Governor. He came to have dinner at our palace because Cinteotl makes a really tasty green pozole. Cinteotl is the cook at our palace and she knows how to make all the types of pozole that exist in the world, which are three: the green kind, the white kind, and the red kind. I don’t like pozole much, mainly because it’s got cooked lettuce in it, which is ridiculous. Lettuce is for salads and sandwiches. Also you make pozole with pigs’ heads: once I peeped into the pot and there were teeth and ears floating around in the broth. Sordid. The things I like are enchiladas, quesadillas, and tacos al pastor. I like tacos al pastor without the pineapple, because pineapple on a taco is ridiculous, too. I hardly put any chili on my enchiladas, because otherwise my belly hurts a lot.
The Governor is a man who thinks he governs the people who live in a state. Yolcaut says the Governor doesn’t govern anyone, not even his fucking mother. In any case the Governor is a nice man, although he has a tuft of white hair in the middle of his head that he doesn’t shave off. I had fun listening to Yolcaut and the Governor talking. But the Governor didn’t. His face was all red, as if it were going to explode, because I was eating some quesadillas while they had green pozole and talked about their cocaine business. Yolcaut told him to calm down, that I was old enough, that we were a gang and in gangs you don’t hide the truth. Then the Governor asked me how old I was and when I told him he decided I was still too young to know about that sort of thing. That was when Yolcaut lost his temper and threw a whole load of dollar bills from a bag into the Governor’s face. There were lots of them, thousands. And he started to shout at him:
“Shut the fuck up, Governor, what the fuck do you know? Go on, you bastard, take your money, you asshole.”
Then he told me that’s what our business was for, for bankrolling assholes. The Governor’s face went even more red, as if he really was going to explode, but he started to laugh. Yolcaut said if he was so worried about me then he should get me a hippopotamus. The Governor made a face like he didn’t understand a thing, so I explained that what I wanted was a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus, which is very hard to get hold of without going to the country of Liberia. His face stopped looking like it was going to explode. He asked us: “And why don’t you go to Liberia?” Yolcaut just replied:
“Don’t be an asshole, Governor.”
Then the Governor said:
“Let’s see, we might be able to sort something out.” And Yolcaut stroked my head with his fingers covered in gold-and-diamond rings.
“You see, Tochtli: Yolcaut always finds a way.”
The truth is, sometimes Mexico is a wonderful country where you can do really good deals. That is, sometimes Mexico is a disastrous country, but sometimes it’s a wonderful country, too.
* * *
One song I love is “The King.” It was even the first song I learned by heart. And back then I was really little and my memory wasn’t even devastating yet. The truth is I didn’t know it that well, but I used to make up the bits I couldn’t remember. The thing is it’s really easy to rhyme in this song. For instance: king and sing rhyme. If you swap one word with another, no one will notice. The bit I like in “The King” is the part where it says I don’t have a throne or a queen for my wife, or someone who pays for the things in my life, but I’m still the king. That’s where it explains the things you need in order to be king: a throne, a queen, and someone to support you. Although when you sing the song you don’t have any of this, not even money, and you’re still king, because your word is law. That’s because the song’s really about being macho. Sometimes macho men aren’t afraid and that’s why they’re macho. But also sometimes macho men don’t have anything and they’re still kings, because they’re macho.
The best thing about being a king is that you don’t have to work. All you have to do is put on your crown and that’s it, the people in your kingdom give you money, millions and millions. I’ve got a crown, although I’m not allowed to wear it every day. Yolcaut’s only let me put it on four times. We keep it in a safe with all our treasure. The crown isn’t made of gold, because it belonged to a king from Africa and in Africa everyone is poor, even the kings. The country of Liberia is in Africa. The good thing is that Mexico isn’t in Africa. It would be disastrous if Mexico were in Africa. The crown is made of metal and diamonds. It cost us a lot of money because to be a king in Africa you have to kill lots of people. It’s like a competition: the one who wears the crown is the one who’s made the most corpses. Mazatzin says it’s the same in Europe. This subject also makes him furious and inspires him to give lectures. Mazatzin wasn’t inspired to write a book at the top of his mountain, but he was inspired to give lectures, which he does all the time. He says:
“Europe is built on a mountain of corpses, Usagi, rivers of blood flow through Europe.”
When we talk about these things you can see Mazatzin hates the Spanish and sometimes even the French. All Europeans. Pathetic. I think the French are good people because they invented the guillotine. And the Spanish are good customers of Yolcaut’s business. But the Gringos are better customers. The Mexicans are not good customers for Yolcaut, because Yolcaut refuses to do business with them. One of the corpses I met was a security guard who used to do what Chichilkuali does, but he decided to start doing business in Mexico. Yolcaut doesn’t want to poison the Mexicans. Mazatzin says that’s what’s called being a nationalist.
* * *
The mutest person I know is Quecholli. Miztli brings her to our palace two or three times a week. Quecholli has really long legs, according to Cinteotl this long: one and a half meters. Miztli says something else, something enigmatic:
“Thirty-six, twenty-four, thirty-six.”
It’s a secret, he says it to me when no one’s listening. Everything about Quecholli is a secret. She walks around the palace without looking at anyone, without making a sound, always clinging to Yolcaut. Sometimes they disappear and then reappear, really mysterious. They spend hours like that, the whole day, until Quecholli leaves. Then Miztli brings her back again and it’s back to the secrets and disappearing.
The most enigmatic time is when we all sit down together to eat on the terrace: Yolcaut, Quecholli, Mazatzin, and me. The first time, Mazatzin asked Quecholli if she was from León or Guadalajara or wherever. Quecholli didn’t say a thing. She looked at Mazatzin for a second and then Yolcaut shouted that she was from the motherfucking house of the rising sun.
It might seem like Quecholli is blind too, because you almost never know which direction she’s looking in. But she’s not blind: I’ve seen her looking at my hats. Another strange thing is that she only eats salad. Her favorite is a salad with lettuce, tomato, broccoli, onion, and avocado. Then she adds lime juice and salt with those long thin fingers she has. Covered in rings. But Quecholli’s rings are delicate and really tiny, not like Yolcaut’s, which are thick and have gigantic diamonds on them. She’s not a millionaire like us.
Over dinner Yolcaut and Mazatzin talk about politicians. It’s a funny conversation because Yolcaut laughs a lot and tells Mazatzin he’s so fucking gullible. Mazatzin doesn’t laugh as much, because he thinks we should have a government of left-wing politicians. He says: “If the left were in power this wouldn’t happen.” Yolcaut laughs some more. Some days Mazatzin says the names of politicians to Yolcaut and, depending on the name, Yolcaut replies:
Sometimes Mazatzin looks surprised and laughs and says I knew it, I knew it. Other times he shouts Liar, liar, and Yolcaut tells him hes so fucking gullible.
While Quecholli eats her salad the rest of us eat whatever delicacy Cinteotl has made. Mazatzin loves her cooking. When he’s finished he shouts for Cinteotl and tells her that was the best mole of his life, if we ate mole, or the best tampiqueña, or whatever it was. Pathetic. Yolcaut thinks being hungry is in Mazatzin’s genes. Quecholli, since she’s mute, says nothing. Mazatzin says she’s a vegetarian. I say she’s like the Liberian pygmy hippopotamuses, an herbivore. But Liberian pygmy hippopotamuses don’t like lettuce salads, they like alfalfa salads. If Quecholli weren’t mute I’d ask her opinion on the hot lettuce in the pozole.
* * *
This is what was on the news today on the TV: the tigers in the zoo in Guadalajara ate a woman all up, apart from her left leg. Maybe her left leg wasn’t a very juicy bit. Or maybe the tigers were already full up. I’ve never been to the zoo in Guadalajara. Once I asked Yolcaut to take me, but instead of taking me he brought more animals to the palace. That was when he bought me the lion. And he said something to me about a man who couldn’t go to a mountain and so the mountain came to him.
The eaten woman was the head zookeeper and she had two children, a husband, and international prestige. That’s a pretty word, prestige. They said it might have been suicide or murder, because she never used to go into the tigers’ cage. We don’t use our tigers for suicides or for murders. Miztli and Chichilkuali do the murders with orifices made from bullets. I don’t know how we do the suicides, but we don’t do them with tigers. We use the tigers for eating the corpses. And we use our lion for that, too. But we mainly use them for looking at, because they’re strong and really well-proportioned animals and they’re nice to look at. It must be because they’re so well fed. I’m not supposed to know these things, because they’re secrets Miztli and Chichilkuali do at night. But in that way I do think I’m precocious, in discovering secrets.
At the end of the report the man on the news looked very sad and said he hoped the head zookeeper would rest in peace. How stupid. She was already chewed up inside the tigers’ tummies. And she’s only going to stay there while the tigers digest her, because she’ll end up being turned into tiger poo. Rest in peace, like hell. At the most her left leg will rest in peace.
Yolcaut watched the news with me and when it was over he said some enigmatic things to me. First he said:
“Ah, they suicided her.”
And then, when he’d stopped laughing:
“Think the worst and you’ll be right.”
Sometimes Yolcaut speaks in enigmatic and mysterious sentences. When he does that it’s pointless to ask him what he means, because he never tells me. He wants me to solve the enigma.
Before I went to sleep I looked up the word prestige in the dictionary. I learned that prestige is about people having a good idea about you, and thinking you’re the best. In that case you have prestige. Pathetic.
* * *
Today I’m devastatingly desperately bored. I’m bored because I don’t leave the palace and because every day is the same.
I get up at eight o’clock, I wash and I have breakfast.
From nine to one I have lessons with Mazatzin.
I play on the PlayStation from one to two.
Between two and three we have lunch.
From three to five I do my homework and research my own subjects.
From five to eight I do whatever I can think of.
At eight o’clock we have dinner.
From nine to ten I watch TV with Yolcaut and then after ten o’clock I go to my room to read the dictionary and go to sleep.
The next day is the same. Saturdays and Sundays are the worst, because I spend the whole day waiting to see what I can think of to do: going to see our animals, watching films, talking about secret things with Miztli, playing on the PlayStation, cleaning my hats, watching TV, making lists of the things I want so Miztli can buy them for me … Sometimes it’s fun, but also sometimes it’s disastrous. Because of Yolcaut’s paranoia I haven’t been out of the palace for quite a few days, eleven.
It all began when they showed soldiers looking for drugs on the news. Chichilkuali said to Yolcaut:
Yolcaut told him not to be an asshole. The next day on the TV they said that some men who were in prison in Mexico had been sent to live in a prison in the country of the United States as a surprise. Yolcaut started to pay really close attention to the news and he even asked me to be quiet. On the TV they were showing a list with the names of the men who now lived in the prison in the country of the United States. When the report was over Yolcaut said one of his enigmatic and mysterious phrases. He said:
“The shit’s really hit the fan now.”
It was a really enigmatic phrase, because even Chichilkuali went quiet with a face like he wanted to decipher the mystery.
* * *
Since then there’ve been corpses on the TV every day. They’ve shown: the corpse in the zoo, corpses of policemen, corpses of drug traffickers, corpses from the army, corpses of politicians, and corpses of fucking innocent people. The Governor and the president went on TV to tell all us Mexicans not to worry, to stay calm.
Yolcaut hasn’t been out of the palace either. He spends all his time talking on the phone giving orders. Miztli and Chichilkuali have been out of the palace. Miztli says it’s fucking chaos outside. Chichilkuali says there are fuckloads of problems. Yolcaut wants us to go on a trip to a faraway place for a while, for protection. He asked me where I wanted to go and promised me we’d go wherever I wanted. Mazatzin advised me to ask to go to the empire of Japan. If we went there I could meet a Japanese mute. But I want to go to the country of Liberia to go on safaris and catch a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus.
* * *
Mazatzin has been reading me bits from an old futuristic book. It’s a book a man wrote many years ago imagining the time we live in now. And so it’s really funny, because the author guessed lots of things that happen today, like hair transplants and cloning. But Mazatzin thinks the things the author didn’t guess are funnier, like the thing about hats. In the book everyone wears hats. Mazatzin thinks it’s really funny how the writer was able to imagine difficult things and couldn’t imagine that people would stop wearing hats. And he said it’s as if we were all walking around today wearing sombreros like charro horsemen. Poor Mazatzin. Educated people really do know a lot of things from books, but they know nothing about life. This wasn’t the writer’s mistake. It was humanity’s mistake.
I’ve got lots of charro sombreros, six. One of them is a famous sombrero because a charro wore it in a really old film. Yolcaut bought me the sombrero for my birthday last year and then we watched the film to look for the sombrero. The film’s about two charros fighting over a woman. It’s a really ridiculous film. Instead of fighting with bullets the two horsemen fight with songs. And they’re not even macho songs, like “The King.” That’s what I don’t understand: If they’re charros and macho why do they sing love songs as if they were faggots? Maybe that’s why no one wants to wear a hat anymore, because people used to do ridiculous things like wearing charro sombreros and being faggots. That’s when hats stopped being prestigious. At the end of the film the two charros both end up happy, each with a different woman. They even make friends and live happily ever after: totally ridiculous.
The problem with this film is that it’s Yolcaut’s favorite and he makes me watch it with him whenever he feels like it. We’ve seen it loads of times, easily twenty. I’ve already learned it by heart without meaning to. The worst part is when one of the charros goes up to the woman’s window and says things about love to her. He says: “Your eyes are like starlight, two bright orbs that light up my darkness. I know I don’t deserve you, but without you life is a torment, an eternal dying.” Pathetic. The other charro sombrero I’ve got was a present from Miztli, also for my birthday last year. My birthday last year was disastrous. I got so many charro sombreros it was as if I were a nationalist. This other sombrero was made in Miztli’s village, which according to him is a charro village. But it’s a lie. In charro villages there have to be at least 1,000 horsemen.
One day, a long time ago, Miztli took me to his village and we didn’t see one horse. And there were zero people wearing charro sombreros, zero. There were lots of shops selling charro sombreros and things for horses. One of the shops was called El Charro, another was called Charro World, another Charro Gear, and another one Charrito’s. But there weren’t any charros, there were people taking photos and buying key-rings and postcards. The only charro I saw was a statue at the entrance to the village. He was a suspect charro, because it looked like he was dancing ballet like a faggot. And he didn’t even have a hat. Miztli said someone had stolen it, that one morning the charro woke up without his hat. The thief must have been one of those people who think charros shouldn’t be faggots.
In any case Miztli was really happy to show me his so-called charro village. Pathetic. The truth is, there were more churches than anything else in the village. There were so many churches that instead of a charro village it was a priest village. Miztli thought this was really funny. He said yes, it was a priest village, but they were macho priests. And then he pointed out a little boy who was walking down the street and said:
“Look, look, that’s the bishop’s son.”
The problem with charro sombreros is they’re only for charros. The thing is that the brim is very wide, they might even have the widest brim of all the hats in the world. I think if there were a hat with a wider brim it wouldn’t be a hat any-more. It would be a parasol.
If you’re not a charro and you put on a charro sombrero you might get dizzy and fall over. Then, with your charro sombrero on, it’s really difficult to get up off the floor. Other people put on charro sombreros and they go mad. But not mad for invading countries, like with the three-cornered hats. Really just for shooting bullets into the sky and shouting nationalist slogans.
But the charros don’t fall over or go mad. They stay in the shadow of their sombreros, very mysterious and enigmatic.
Who knows what the charros are hiding from.
Who knows what they’re plotting.
* * *
Today there was an enigmatic corpse on the TV: they cut off his head and he wasn’t even a king. It didn’t look like it was the work of the French either, who like cutting off heads so much. The French put the heads in a basket after cutting them off. I saw it in a film. They put a basket just under the king’s head in the guillotine. Then the French let the blade fall and the king’s head is cut off and lands in the basket. That’s why I like the French so much, they’re so refined. As well as taking off the king’s crown so it doesn’t get dented, they take care that his head doesn’t roll away from them. Then the French give his head to some lady to make her cry. A queen or a princess or something like that. Pathetic.
We Mexicans don’t use baskets when we cut off heads. We hand over the severed heads in a crate of vintage brandy. Apparently this is very important, because the man on the news repeated over and over that the head had been delivered in a crate of vintage brandy. The head was from the corpse of a policeman, the chief of all the policemen or something like that. Nobody knows where the other parts of the corpse went.
On the TV they showed a photo of the head and the truth is he had a really bad hairstyle. He had long hair with a few strands dyed blond, pathetic. Hats are good for that too, for hiding your hair. Not just when it’s a bad hairstyle, because it’s best to hide your hair all the time, even with supposedly nice hairstyles. Hair is a dead part of the body. For example: when you get your hair cut it doesn’t hurt. And if it doesn’t hurt it’s because it’s dead. It does hurt when someone pulls it, but it’s not the hair that hurts, it’s your scalp. I researched it in my free time with Mazatzin. Hair is like a corpse you wear on your head while you’re alive. And it’s a devastating corpse that grows and grows without stopping, which is very sordid. Maybe when you turn into a corpse your hair isn’t sordid anymore, but before, it is. That’s the best thing about Liberian pygmy hippopotamuses: they’re bald.
I don’t have hair for that reason. Yolcaut shaves it with a razor as soon as it starts to grow. The razor is the same as the machine Azcatl uses to cut the grass, but small. And hair is like the weeds you have to fight. Sometimes Yolcaut gets annoyed because I ask him to shave my head really often. Bald people are definitely very lucky.
* * *
These are the things you can hide under a detective hat: your hair, a baby rabbit, a tiny little gun with minuscule bullets, a carrot for the baby rabbit. Detective hats aren’t very good hiding places. If you need to put a rifle with gigantic bullets in there it won’t fit. The best hats for hiding things in are top hats, like the ones magicians wear. But detective hats are good for solving enigmas and mysteries. I’ve got lots of detective hats, three. I put them on whenever I find out mysterious things are going on in the palace. And I start to investigate, stealthily. It’s not like the research I do with Mazatzin, because I do that with books. Books don’t have anything in them about the present, only the past and the future. This is one of the biggest defects of books. Someone should invent a book that tells you what’s happening at this moment, as you read. It must be harder to write that sort of book than the futuristic ones that predict the future. That’s why they don’t exist. And that’s why I have to go and investigate reality.
* * *
Today Miztli and Chichilkuali did mysterious things, like filling a truck with crates they took out of one of the empty rooms we don’t use. When they left I put on a detective hat and discovered one of Yolcaut’s enigmas. The empty rooms we don’t use are always locked, but today one was left open. And it turns out we don’t have five empty rooms we don’t use, only four, or none: one of the empty rooms we don’t use is really the gun and rifle room.
The guns are hidden in drawers and the rifles are hidden inside a cupboard. I didn’t have time to count them, because I didn’t want Yolcaut to find me, but we must have at least about 1,000 guns and about 500 rifles. We’ve got all different sizes, we even have a rifle with gigantic bullets. That’s when I realized Yolcaut and I are playing the bullet game wrong: with a bullet from that rifle you’d definitely turn into a corpse, it wouldn’t matter where it got you, apart from the hair, which is already dead. We should play the bullet game saying the number of bullets, the part of the body, and the size of the bullet. A little orifice, where it would take five days for all the blood to come out, isn’t the same as an enormous orifice, where it’d take five seconds. I also found a tiny little pistol with some bullets so minuscule that even if it shot you seventy times in the heart you still wouldn’t be a corpse.
If I’d known what I was going to find in the gun and rifle room I wouldn’t have put on a detective hat. I would have put on the highest top hat from my hat collection, one you could fit about six or seven rabbits in. I would have liked to hide the rifle with gigantic bullets under my hat, but all I could take was the tiny little pistol with the minuscule bullets. Disastrous. But the most disastrous thing of all was finding out Yolcaut is telling me lies, like saying we have empty rooms when they’re really rooms with guns and rifles in them. Gangs are not about lies. Gangs are about solidarity, protection, and not hiding the truth from each other. At least that’s what Yolcaut says, but he’s a liar. I don’t think I’m even going to get a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. Or go to the country of Liberia. They must be more of Yolcaut’s lies.
* * *
When I can’t bear the pain in my tummy, like today, Cinteotl makes me a cup of chamomile tea. Sometimes I get such bad pains I even start crying. Normally they’re like cramps, although the worst ones feel like a hole that keeps growing and growing and it’s as if my tummy’s going to explode. I always cry when I get these pains, but I’m not a faggot. Being ill is different from being a faggot. If you’re ill it’s all right to cry, Yolcaut told me.
Cinteotl has a drawer full of herbs for curing illnesses. She’s got chamomile for the stomach, linden flowers for nerves, orange leaves for dieting, passionflower for nerves, orange blossom for digestion, valerian for nerves, and a load of other herbs, lots of them for nerves. Yolcaut doesn’t like tea, he says it’s a coward’s drink.
Yolcaut used to prefer Miztli to get the doctor when my tummy hurt a lot. The doctor was quite an old man and when Yolcaut wasn’t looking he used to slip me tamarind sweets. And I’m not even allowed to eat tamarind. Or chili. According to the doctor, there was something wrong with my psychology, not my tummy.
The best thing about the doctor was he told some really funny stories about aliens. Once aliens came to León in their spaceship. They landed in a field of corn to collect plants and animals. In the place where the spaceship landed they left a burned patch where no plants have ever grown again, not even grass. And this was many years ago, more than four, I think. Another time the aliens came to abduct a little girl. And another time they were hovering above Aguascalientes for an hour.
The doctor doesn’t come anymore because Yolcaut got annoyed with him. Once, according to Miztli, the doctor told Yolcaut it wasn’t really my stomach making me ill, but that the pains came from not having a mummy, and what I needed was a psychology doctor. Supposedly this is what’s called a psychosomatic illness, which means the illness is in the mind. But my mind isn’t ill, my brain has never hurt.
* * *
There’s a scandal on the TV because they showed a photo of the policeman’s severed head. But it’s not because of his hairstyle. This is the scandal: Some people think they shouldn’t show pictures of severed heads on the TV. Or corpses. Other people think they should, that everyone has a right to see the truth. Yolcaut laughs at this scandal and says that this is the bullshit people amuse themselves with. I don’t say anything. But I don’t think it’s bullshit. Yolcaut thinks it’s bullshit because he doesn’t care about truth and lies. I was about to tell him that gangs are about telling the truth too, but I kept quiet. What happened is I became a mute. And I also stopped being called Tochtli. Now I’m called Usagi and I’m a Japanese mute.
It’s been barely seven hours since I became a mute and already I’m an enigma and a mystery. Everyone wants to know why I’m not speaking and to stop me being mute. Cinteotl made me a cup of tea with some foul-tasting herbs, supposedly to cure my throat. Yolcaut thinks I’m mute because he hasn’t got me the Liberian pygmy hippopotamus and spends all his time telling me I must be patient. But I didn’t become mute because of that, it was Yolcaut’s lies.
I can’t explain why I’m mute to anyone now. Mutes don’t give explanations. Or they give them with their hands. I don’t know the hand language mutes use, so I’m a mute squared. Mazatzin asked me if we could speak by writing. Then I decided to be deaf, and mute with writing, too. To be deaf what you have to do is remember a snatch of a song and repeat it over and over in your head. I picked a little bit from “The King,” where it says Cryyy and cryyy, cryyy and cryyy, cryyy and cryyy, cryyy and cryyy. The writing bit is easier, you just have to be illiterate: instead of writing words you do drawings or rather squiggles. And so now I’m deaf and mute cubed.
Today I’m wearing a Japanese samurai hat. Inside I’m carrying my tiny little pistol with the minuscule bullets. Shhhh …
We rabbits do poos like pellets.
Perfect little round pellets, like the ammunition for pistols.
We rabbits shoot poo bullets with pistols.
Copyright © 2010 by Juan Pablo Villalobos
Meet the Author
Juan Pablo Villalobos was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1973. He studied marketing and Spanish literature. He has researched such diverse topics as the influence of the avant-garde on the work of César Aira and the flexibility of pipelines for electrical installations. He lives in Barcelona, Spain.
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