Tuesday, March 24, 2009
The Fighting Mummy
The day was hot and muggy. University students and old men sat languidly in the shade of the main plaza of a little town in the coastal desert of Peru. The Cathedral bells rang twelve noon.
Santos, a swaggering, tough 13-year-old shoeshine boy was giving some advice to “The Mummy.” Mummy was his skinny, coughing, barefoot nine-year-old friend. Suddenly, Santos whispered, “Quick! Here he comes!”
The two boys scurried in different directions. They clutched their boxes of equipment tightly so nothing would fall out.
A fat, angry, plaza guard, waving a stick, chased after them. The guard chased after one, and then the other. But the boys were too quick. Breathless, sweating, and fuming,the guard gave up.
The boys, laughing and puffing, soon found one another again and sat down to rest. “That’s the third time this morning,” Mummy gasped. A fit of coughing prevented him from further conversation.
Santos begged a glass of water from the woman at a nearby fruit stand. He offered it to Mummy. “Here, take it easy. We got away, didn’t we?”
Mummy said nothing. He had been shining shoes for two years, ever since he was seven. He had learned a lot of things and now he sat with his elbows resting on his knees, his chin almost touching his knees, almost like the ancient Peruvian mummies. He had been sitting like that the day the boys gave him his nickname.
Just then, a big man in an expensive grey suit came along. Mummy called out, “Shine, sir.” The man stopped, looked at his shoes and then put one foot on Mummy’s box.
Business-like the boy set to work. First, he brushed off the dust; then he carefully applied a little polish. Mummy protected the man’s sock by running his little finger along the top edge of the shoe as he put the polish on.
Next he splashed a few drops of water from a little bottle. The drops rolled around on the shoe and Mummy massaged them into the polish with his fingers.
Then came the shine with the special rag his mother had made him from his father’s old trousers. Mummy seemed to be attached to some source of electric power as his arms moved the rag over the shoe like a continually reversing conveyor belt. At last, the shoes shone like new mirrors. Mummy slapped the tow of on shoe and held out a polish smudged hand for hit tip.
Santos had a customer too, so Mummy waited and survey the world through two pensive brown eyes.
For two months the battle had been on. It had all started with the Mayor’s Clean Up Campaign. The plaza guards had been ordered to chase the shoeshine boys out of the Plaza. They might hurt the tourist trade.
Santos finished and rejoined Mummy. “Let’s get something to eat,” he said.
“If I eat, I won’t have much to take home,” Mummy said.
“Well, you have got to eat something,” Santos ordered. “That’s why your cough hangs on. You didn’t eat anything yesterday. C’mon, Doña Rosa will give us a saucer of seviche for five soles. We will split it.”
The boys shared the seviche (a popular Peruvian dish of raw fish marinated in a sauce of lemon juice, onions, and hot pepper). Santos continued to counsel Mummy. “We have to fight the Mayor. The good guys want to change things. Before, the Mayor could live in town and go out, when he felt like it, to collect from the guys who worked his farm. Now absentee landlords are having trouble. He afraid he will lose the farm, so he is trying to get an edge on the tourist trade.
“My dad says we have got to stay in the Plaza. Nowadays, poor people have rights, too, but we have to fight for them.”
Mummy counted his earnings. He held out his hand for Santos to see how little it was.
Santos insisted, “Yeah, I know. We are losing the fight, but just the same, we have got to fight.”
Mummy handed back the plate to Doña Rosa, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and rubbed his hands on his trousers. Suddenly, he darted across the street and pounced on a boy his own size. Soon the two were down on the pavement, locked in a vicious struggle. Mummy was searching the other boy’s pockets. The victim pushed and kicked trying to escape, but Mummy was on top and would not let him go.
Santos caught up and tried to reason with Mummy. “Mummy, what did the kid do to you?”
“He borrowed ten soles a week ago. I have asked him for it three times,’ gasped Mummy.
The boy on the ground blinked back tears as he said, “As soon as I get it, I’ll give it to you.”
“Aw, let him go, Mum. He hasn’t got it,” ruled Santos.
Mummy’s eyes showed a moment of indecision, but with one last punch, he said, “Okay, but tomorrow.” The debtor, after a grateful look at Santos, scampered off.
Mummy poked his friend in the ribs. “Santos,” he said. How come you want me to fight for the plaza, but now for my ten soles?”
“Listen. All us shoeshine kids have to stick together. The bad guys like it when we fight one another. It means we are not fighting them,” Santos explained. “The plaza belongs to everybody.”
Mummy thought about this as he always did anything that Santos said.
When night came, the two boys went their separate ways. Mummy dragged his feet because the day had brought only fifty soles. What can Ma do with that,’ he asked himself.
As he walked home, he wished with all his heart that Papa was still with them, but it had been two years since that night when he stopped coughing for ever. Since then, Ma sold fruit in the market. Elvira, Mummy’s eleven-year-old sister, watched the house and took care of their baby brother.
At last, Mummy reached the dark narrow alley and found his way to the piece of corrugated zinc that served as a door to the one room that was home. As his eyes got used to the candlelight, he saw Ma at the wooden table mending an old shirt.
Mummy placed his earnings on the tableas Elvira brought him the dish of rice she had saved from dinner.
As Ma gathered the soles, she said, “You look all tuckered out. You are working too hard.” Ma made made you feel proud of whatever you did.
When it was time for bed, she unrolled the lambskins and the boys settled down for the night under one blanket on one side of the room, Ma and Elvira on the other. For a few minutes Santos and his baby brother wrestled one another. Soon all were quiet.
Mummy awakened early the next morning. He stole out before the others wakened. He wanted to get to the plaza and do a few shines before it was time to go to school.
For five months he had struggled to earn a little every day. His cough got worse and worse. Ma took him to the government clinic. The doctor gave him medicine and told Ma to see that he got lots of milk and meat.
As the days went by Mummy got less able to run from the plaza guard, but Santos looked for him when it was time to eat. Often they split a saucer of seviche.
Then, one day Mummy fainted and a policeman took him to the hospital. The doctor told Ma that he was very sick. Santos visited him every day. On the third day, Santos saw that Mummy was trying to say something.
Mummy was very weak, his voice was a hoarse whisper, his hospital gown was damp with perspiration, but he struggled to sit up.Just before he fell back on the pillow, Santos heard him say, “Shine, sir.”
© 2009 Photo and story Elizabeth V. Roach - This story is adapted from a story Sister Elizabeth published in CATHOLIC FIRESIDE, in Britain in 1975. It was based on the life of Augusto Berrocal who died of tuberculosis at the age of fourteen in Ica, Peru.