The Revenge of the Whirling Dervishes

by Luisa Elena Flores , Panama, 1999
translated by Carol Ruth Green, Canada, 2004

Four small pairs of bare feet raise dust on the road. Youngsters with decaying teeth who don't have enough to eat. Dirty little kids. Dervishes destined to spin forever, going nowhere. Youngsters covered in rags faded the brownish dark hue of never washed clothes. They are light as bean pods stripped of their seed. The kids have neither the minimum height nor weight for their age, but they have great determination. Through the slum of corrugated metal shacks, they traipse. Cross the little bridge over the ditch of black water, garbage and dead animals. Go up the bare knoll and slip over the brick wall that separates them from the well-to-do folk.

Three boys and a girl plus their lice and worms headed toward the Church of the Merciful Heart that Palm Sunday. The desires of that little band of brats were all summed up in Juanito, the ringleader. He wanted revenge for himself and for the other dogs of his breed. Dogs. That is what they had called him the week before.

He remembered it well. During recess Juanito began to beg for money.

"Lend me five cents" he could be heard to say, his voice trembling and terse.

He advanced with difficulty through the crowd of students collecting five cents here, and after awhile, another five cents there. One would think that Juanito was a beggar intruding in the school, but no. He was a beggar who the teachers had taken pity on. They let him attend classes with no registration, no uniform, no books, no pen, no food in his stomach. Some of the well-to-do students had watched him begging. They followed him more out of curiosity than disgust.

"After I put together the fifty for the hamburger, I bought it, climbed into my hideout and gulped it down. The other kids found me." "Shit eating dog," they yelled. They laughed. "Do you think you can take advantage of us all year? Are you going to eat hamburgers out of our pockets? Go sell newspapers" they yelled. "Snotty-nosed snobs. They don't know nothing. There ain't no more quotas to sell papers, they ain't letting nobody take garbage from the dump, and there ain't no more room for garbage pickers."

The three that ran with Juanito had experienced similar situations. The teacher seated the slum children beside the well-to-do children so that they could share books for reading. The well-to-do children held their breath with disgust and couldn't hide the nervous twitch that took over their faces and necks. There were also other sporting practices such as name-calling, demeaning jokes, isolation, tripping and threats. But the favourite sport of the well-to-do students was to transform them into scapegoats each time that something got lost in the classroom.

The whirling dervishes knew that the well-to-do students, so immaculate, were making their debut as choirboys in church that Palm Sunday. Everything had to be ready in anticipation. Starched, pure white shirts. Red gowns. Black ties. Shiny shoes stinking of new leather. Voices perfected with practice. Hair cut and washed. Innocent faces of youth. The way mommy and daddy's boys look.

That Sunday morning his mother was on shift at the maquiladora. She was almost always on shift. Juanito only saw her in times of rest, when she slept. Every chance he got, he curled up beside her, synchronizing his breath with hers and pretending to join her in her usual, exhausted deep sleep. Juanito came out of his shack and there were the other three. It is difficult to say: "and there were his three friends." Poverty in the slums is such that Juanito has no money, no hair, no friends, no vaccinations, no father, no iron in his blood, no calcium in his bones, no education, no religion. The only thing that Juanito and the other three have, the only bit of humanity they have left, is their need to see justice done. And so Juanito and the other three have spent the whole night catching cockroaches and putting them in a rusty milk tin. It was cheap, because Juanito and the other three dervishes had plenty of cockroaches.

As always, they arrived at dawn in the yard of the century-old church and took possession of the swing. It was a tire that hung on a rope tied on a giant branch of a mango tree that some priest, long since dead, had planted there. The children took turns on the swing whirling endlessly like dervishes. One of them climbed onto the tire and the other three spun it wildly until he felt sick and began to shout "I'm dizzy, dizzy, dizzy, dizzy!" The conspirators stopped the swing sharply, helped the dizzy one to get down and lie on the undulating tree roots. Then, while the weakened and nauseous dervish rolled around on the ground trying to reorient himself, the others bet "He's going to puke, who says no, who says yes, who says no..."

Later, the four hid with their can full of cockroaches. Three-inch antennas beckoned through the air holes in the can. The dervishes watched until the last of the faithful entered the church. Then they went through the small door that connected the yard with a little room where the holy water was kept, beside the altar. The choir was so enthralling that no one noticed their arrival. They crawled behind the altar like guerrillas with their live bomb. When they were behind the choir and just as it was in full flight of 'Lord have mercy', they let go their slum cockroaches. Cockroaches laid siege to the red gowns. They infiltrated the starched white shirts. They attacked the new shoes of stinking leather. They climbed into the recently cut hair. They ran and flew in a stampede over and around the choirboys. The faithful let out a collective moan of horror and the choir scattered in all directions as though chased by flames.

That night, when his mother returned home, Juanito curled up beside her and went to sleep with a smile on his lips.

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