May 11, 2018
Dear Mamá Coco,
There's a lot I want to tell you, but I'm a little scared of something going on here. Papá went to Juarez this to meet our friend the detective. He said I couldn't come, and that might mean something really bad. I don't know what's happening, and I wish you were here. I'd just sit with you, like I did when Mamá was sick with the baby who didn't come.
I guess I'd tell you other things, like I did then. I did go to that concert I told you about last time, with Abril. We had a nice time, but she mostly wanted to know about what it was like to be on television, and if I wanted to be famous. And she showed me off a little bit, like she won a prize. I don't like her as much anymore. I mean, it's okay and I don't hate her, but I'm probably not taking her to more concerts.
I won a track meet. First place. I was really good at hurdles. And Rosa won a spelling bee. Abel and Tío Berto are making a new hallway that connects the old house to the new house. It will have a sewing room for Mamá and anyone else who wants to learn, so now they won't have piles of fabric in the shoe workshop. But it's mostly to connect the old house. I'm going to fix it up pretty. I'm going to live there when I'm grown. Papá doesn't believe it. He thinks I'll run off for my music, but I won't. I want to have children someday, and I want them to be in Santa Cecilia with their family.
I can't really think about any of it, though. I wish I were in Juarez. So I would know the worst. I don't know if Papá will tell me everything. Maybe I don't want to know.
Enrique was heartily sick of airports by the time he got to Juarez. It wasn't the flights themselves that had put him in a bad temper -- an hour and a half from Oaxaca to Mexico City, then a little less than three hours to Juarez -- but the layover in Mexico City had been long. Eight hours. During the day, he might have gone and done something, but the eight hours were overnight.
Carlos had dropped by to keep him company and fill him in on the thesis project, which had taken a sharp turn toward a popularly published book.
"This really wasn't the plan," he'd said. "But de la Cruz is a big subject, and… I suppose people are curious. But I'm going to wait to hear from you and Denny. If…"
But he sighed, and didn't follow it up.
Enrique had resisted the temptation to demand answers over the phone. The more publicity Carlos got for his thesis, the more curiosity-seekers had started ordering Rivera shoes, and the shop had been too busy for a side trip to Juarez until now. Besides, in the follow-up to the original text, Calles had asked for anything that might have Mamá Coco's DNA on it -- a hairbrush or a toothbrush -- and the family had realized that this meant the breakthrough might be really large. There'd been a search for her old things, and the local medical examiner had agreed to look for useful DNA, but it had taken a couple of weeks.
Enrique was sure that Calles would have told him over the phone what he'd found, but he hadn't demanded, because something told him that these weeks, however madly busy, might be the last in which he didn't know something that he didn't want to know. Calles seemed to understand that, and let him have breathing room.
"Is Miguel okay?" Carlos had asked. "He's doing his work, but he seems a little distant."
"He's worried about this. Plus a girl he liked didn't turn out to be quite what he thought."
"A girl, already?"
"Just a friend who went to that concert with him. Though he dressed up for it a little more than I liked to see."
"Well, these things are going to happen." Carlos had given him a sympathetic smile, then went on to talk about the next steps, once the order for the studio to release the songbook had come through. "De la Cruz had no heirs," he said. "So the studio got control of his assets here in the city. You can get tours through the house. They're spinning like mad. I took the damn tour, you know. In disguise. I heard all about the lies this greedy conservatory student has been making up for some reason. Apparently, this hypothetical person just wants to attack someone who can't defend himself anymore, just to get a book deal."
Enrique winced. "I'm sorry."
"Oh, I'd have done this even if I'd never met your family. This is about a musician who was robbed. I want some justice for that."
They'd talked for another hour, until Enrique had needed to go to his gate. Then the plane was on the tarmac for forty minutes waiting for clearance, and when he got to Juarez, there were delays with the taxis because of a nightclub shooting in the early hours of the day. By the time he got to his hotel, the last thing he wanted was to actually meet with Calles, but he was already late.
He dropped off his traveling bag in his room and went to the hotel restaurant, where they were serving a halfway decent brunch. A piano player was making his way through something soft and light. People were sitting at tables reading newspapers, with headlines about the shooting, which was supposed to be in a "safe corridor."
Dionisio Calles wasn't reading a newspaper. He was sitting at a table behind a screen of leaves from a plant, looking at his tablet and speaking English. Enrique could see it over his shoulder. Three girls with big smiles and freckles, two with long red hair and the third a brunette, were laughing and telling him about something in tones of great excitement. Enrique didn't speak a lot of English (Gloria did most of the shop's international orders), but he picked up something about school, and a show, and a dance. Calles occasionally contributed something, but mostly seemed to be listening with rapt attention.
Enrique cleared his throat.
Calles looked up and smiled wearily, then said something to the girls. They blew him kisses. One said (in an accent that suggested she didn't speak Spanish often) "Adiós, Denny! Hasta luego! Te quiero!" He blew a kiss back and said in English, "Love you, too, Bridie."
"Don't call me Bridie!" the middle girl said.
"How about 'Biddy'?"
"'Bridget''s bad enough," she muttered.
Calles held up his hand to indicate that Enrique should sit down, and he told the girls in English that he had to go, he had a friend here. There was more quick cross-talk, and Enrique caught the names Emily and Abby, then Calles said, in Spanish, "Enough! I'm hanging up." There were calls of "Adiós" and "Love you," then finally, the tablet fell silent.
"Sorry about that," Calles said. "It's my cousin Bridget's birthday. I wanted to talk to them."
"These are the ones who live in a little town?"
"Well, they aren't the ones who hate me," Calles said, and shook it off. "My Tío Kevin's girls. They live in Minnesota. That's way in the north. They sent me snow pictures last winter." He tapped the screen again, and pulled up a picture of two of the girls -- the younger redhead and the little brunette -- bundled up in heavy clothes, happily playing in a gigantic pile of snow. The redhead was waving a Mexican flag and holding up a sign that said, "Hola, Denny."
"I didn't realize you were close to them."
"I spent summers up there when they were really little, and Mamá and I sometimes go up for Christmas. There are only so many people in the world who think I'm a superhero. Bridget wants to come down and spend a summer in the dangerous big city with me, so I better prove to Tío Kevin that I can keep everyone in the world safe. Our nightclub friends did not help the cause this morning." He smiled. "I've been spending so much time with the dead, I just wanted to touch base with the living. Sorry. I didn't mean to be rude."
"It's fine. They're cute, and they're family." Enrique took a deep breath. "So, what is it?"
"We need to go to the college. The gross anatomy lab."
"On a Sunday morning?"
"I have a friend who has a friend," Calles explained vaguely. "The thing is, what we're going to look at has been there for about forty years. I don't know if it's your great-grandfather or not. It doesn't look very pretty."
"Well, if it's Papá Héctor, wouldn't it be bones by now?"
"I went looking for news from the early twenties about bodies on trains. It was a long shot, but I thought I might find out what town he fetched up in, maybe find a common grave. What I found was this."
He tapped something else on his tablet, and the picture of two happy girls in the snow was replaced by a short newspaper article, blown up to fill the whole screen. He handed the tablet to Héctor.
"¡LA MOMIA HABLA!" the headline screamed.
There was no picture. Calles had put in a computer generated line giving the date of the newspaper as November 1, 1922.
Guanajuato has never been the only place in Mexico where mummies could be found, even if it is the most famous. But here in the Chihuahuan desert, we have a brand new mummy!
When the Juarez Express lost three cars in a derailment last December, no one expected there to be casualties other than the textiles they had been carrying. While the freight train was aware that it had lost its last three cars, one of them had remained missing until only last week, having gone over an embankment and buried itself in sand. Until it was found, it was assumed that bandits had carried it off.
But the load of clothing that was destined for the city of Juarez and the tourist attractions in El Paso yielded more than costumes… buried deep in the pile of cloth, which must have acted like Egyptian bandages, was a derelict who must have stowed away on the train, making for the border. His trip must have been rudely interrupted by the crash!
But the train car kept the body safe from coyotes and other desert horrors, and the hot, dry climate did on its own what ancient Egyptians studied for years… it made a mummy… this one dressed in imitation of a mariachi singer! The mummy will be on display in Juarez for two weeks before burial!
Enrique breathed a sigh, partly of horror, partly of relief. "I thought it might be worse," he said. "This was bad, but I thought… I thought something worse…"
"This is the beginning," Calles said. "I suspected this one because of the date in December, and the mariachi connection. It was the closest train body to the date of the last letter. I started to look into it, to see where it was buried. It never was."
"Mummies were big business in the 1920s. Carter was searching for them in the desert in Egypt, and he'd find King Tut's tomb in 1922… November." Calles closed his eyes. "I'm just going to say this straight out and not try to find a way to gentle it, all right? You can find ways to gentle it for Miguel."
"What is it?" Enrique said, through lips that felt numb.
"The mummy was bought by a circus as a sideshow attraction. When Tut's tomb was found in November, it became extremely popular. They toured it around in Chihuahua and Sonora and up into Texas. Sometimes it was dressed up in Egyptian clothes. Mostly not. Mostly it was 'Come see the mariachi mummy!' And they came. Put up pesos and dimes to see it. Some had their pictures taken with it. There was an extra wound put on it to make it look like a violent death, and they said he was a bandido who robbed trains. There were posters. I have them. They --"
"Stop," Enrique said. "Please. Stop."
"If this mummy is your bisabuelo, and Carlos proves that it was his music that made de la Cruz famous, then this is going to be splashed across every television screen in Mexico, and probably beyond. You need to prepare your family for it."
Enrique blinked at him for a minute, then suddenly, his stomach gave a heave. He stood up and ran to the nearest bathroom, and barely made it before everything he'd eaten in the last day came up for an encore.
He heard Calles come in behind him, but didn't look up as he waited for more dry heaves to pass. Finally, the wave cleared, and he found himself kneeling on the bathroom floor. He felt far away from his body. He pushed himself up and leaned against the wall beside the hand dryer. "I'm sorry," he said.
"It's all right."
"It's just… even if it's not Papá Héctor… it was a human being. Why… how…?"
"There are dead human beings on display all over the world. There are almost sixty behind glass in Guanajuato. And the casts in Pompeii. And the Egyptian ones." Calles shrugged helplessly. "And it wasn't so long ago that people didn't see anything wrong with making the dead into circus attractions. This is hardly the only one. I found at least ten in the same situation. One is still in a curiosity shop in Seattle."
"But this one, the one you think is Papá Héctor… he's not on display anymore?"
"No. The sideshow was shut down. The mummy ended up bought by a private collector here in Juarez. It was on display, but in a private home. A young medical student ended up marrying the collector's daughter, and he was disgusted by the whole display."
"I can't imagine," Enrique muttered, reaching across the flush the toilet, now that he was feeling a little more clear-headed.
"He brought the mummy to the medical school. It's not on display, but they have been doing tests on it. There is DNA. That's why I asked you for any of your grandmother's DNA that might be left. A match with his daughter would be conclusive. Were you able to find anything?"
Enrique nodded. "Our local medical examiner found some on the root of a hair in her hairbrush. It was shut in a drawer, so it was still pretty good. I have the report on my phone."
"Good, that will save time. I thought we'd have to extract it ourselves. Are you ready to go over and find out?"
Enrique wasn't entirely certain that he was ready for anything of the kind, but it had to be done. He nodded.
Calles had a rental car, and he drove them up along route 45 to the university, about a fifteen minute drive early on a Sunday morning. The university wasn't the most beautiful Enrique had ever seen, or maybe that was just his mood. By the time they pulled up to the building Calles was aiming for, Enrique had mostly blocked it out. His head was full of visions of mummies, mostly culled from movies he'd seen as a teenager.
A bespectacled young woman in a lab coat came out to greet them. Enrique introduced her as Manuela. She seemed very excited as she led them back.
"I hope this is helpful to you. We've wondered who he was. We call him El Viejo. Everyone meets El Viejo eventually. Well, everyone interested in forensic medicine, anyway. We know a lot about him, just not who he is." She opened a cold, sterile looking room full of drawers, the kind of thing that Enrique had thought only existed in the fevered imaginations of screenwriters. She did not, however, open any of the drawers to reveal a body with a toe tag. Instead, she went to an inner room, where a table was set up under carefully positioned lights.
On the table was a desiccated human form. It didn't look like leather. More like something that had been petrified.
"Most natural mummies curl into a fetal position," Manuela said. "But El Viejo must have been laid out lengthwise, and there must have been some pressure on him, because…" She pointed to the fully extended body. "He may have been wrapped in the textiles they found him in. For years, they assumed it was accidental, but we've known for a while that it couldn't have been. So we suspected foul play, which has been proven since. But they should have known then. Someone must have taken the trouble to wrap him up pretty tightly." She picked up a box and opened it, showing a rotting purple jacket, a scrap of an old shirt, and a pair of striped pants. "He was also dressed in clothes that didn't fit him. There was at least one post-mortem break in the arm from being jammed into this jacket."
Enrique stared at the clothes. "You're sure the break didn't happen when the train car crashed?"
"We're sure. This type of break isn't consistent with the position the body was found in. So someone handled the body roughly after death. And something was jammed into the mouth--"
"We assume a wash cloth," Calles said in a quiet, soothing voice, shooting a look to Manuela that Enrique didn't like much. "Someone cleaned most of vomit out of mouth. And… well, you'll see the reports."
"Some vomit was left at the back of the throat," Manuela added. "And there was a false tooth that had been painted with enamel, but someone scraped it off. Probably to confuse identity. If it had been for theft, they'd have taken the tooth itself, which is gold."
She continued to chatter nervously about mummies and how "El Viejo" had been preserved over the years. There was something about a hole in the abdomen that was obviously put there after the mummification, because of… reasons…. and it had been when they'd been advertising him as a bandito who'd been shot trying to rob a train and… Enrique tuned her out and looked at the remains.
They weren't disgusting or frightening, but there was something horribly sad about them. That this was Papá Héctor, he had no doubt about. He still looked like his picture. He had a little beard, a bit fuller than the one in the photo, but still small. His hair was mostly preserved, though that might have been something the circus did, for all Enrique knew. His high cheekbones, sharp nose, and large eyes were there (though Enrique didn't know if there was anything behind the strange, stone-like lids). The clothes were the ones Miguel had described to Abel for the picture he'd made. There was a bloodless hole that had been cut into his gut to make an audience think he'd been shot; it looked more like a knife wound, and why would any cut up a mummy? Or any dead body? The head had been pulled back by the contracting neck muscles, and the mouth was pulled into a wide and silent scream.
There was no urge to vomit this time, just to weep, and to hold his great-grandfather the way he might hold his son, to try and make it all right. He reached forward. "May I?" he asked Manuela.
Enrique took a deep breath, then put his hand over the shriveled hand of the mummy and held it. For a minute, he struggled with revulsion at the touch, but he reminded himself that this was his great-grandfather, and even if it wasn't, it was a human being who deserved to be treated -- for once -- as a man. The leathery thing became a person's hand to him, and he gave it a gentle squeeze, then leaned over and kissed the desiccated forehead. "Be at peace, Papá," he whispered, then stood up slowly, let go of the hand, and said, "What do we do from here?"
It turned out to be very technical. He turned over the results of the coroner's report on Mamá Coco's hair, and Manuela started comparing it to tests on El Viejo. While the computer was doing its work, she gave him access to all of the research people had done on the mummy for the last forty years, which was substantial. He sat down at a someone's cluttered desk to read through it. Most of it was too technical for him to go through without at least a dictionary, but he caught the salient points.
The first was simple enough: There were traces of strychnine sulfate in the tissues of the body. Rat poison. Easy to get. There was enough present not only to have caused death in a sudden dose, but the researchers theorized that El Viejo may have been ingesting the stuff for a while, as traces were found at the tips of the hair and fingernails. The conclusion was that the man would have felt increasingly ill, and might eventually have died of the gradual poisoning, but that he had been given a massive dose of the stuff just prior to death. A second paper questioned whether it was suicide or homicide, coming down on the side of homicide because of the circumstances of the body's concealment. (That said, this researcher had clearly been fond of his suicide theory, and had spent a good deal of time suggesting that someone was just trying to cover up a loved one's suicide.)
A third paper destroyed the suicide theory by an examination of the mouth, which showed signs not of the tender cleaning of a friend or spouse who simply wanted a clean burial for a suspected suicide, but of rough and nasty handling. Aside from the scraped tooth, there were abrasions on the cheeks from a rough washcloth or a scrub brush, and the whole body appeared to have been scoured. At the time, the murderer probably had fingerprints on his mind, but it had been effective at removing any other trace of the killer as well. Most disturbingly, a piece of rotten meat had been forced to the back of the throat.
"This seems to have been a poor attempt at deflection," the student had written. "A bit of chorizo was lodged in the throat, and was certainly spoiled even at the time, but if it was meant to suggest food poisoning, it was ineffective, as it was clearly placed postmortem and pushed violently into the throat, possibly in an attempt to make it seem half-swallowed, but as it sits above a column of vomitus in the esophagus, it is impossible for it to be have been ingested pre-mortem, or for it to have caused choking and asphyxiation."
Enrique tried to the stop the image from coming into his head, but he couldn't. In his mind's eye, he saw the body in the train car, lying on top of a pile of cheap mariachi costumes, its arm broken as it was forced into what might have been a child's jacket. Ernesto de la Cruz (perversely in a costume from one of his movies, in Enrique's imagination) was kneeling over him, maybe even kneeling on his chest, having fished through garbage somewhere to find an old chorizo, which he was forcing into Héctor's throat. Just as an extra precaution? Or had de la Cruz just realized what he'd really done and was desperate to try and conceal it? Or had he actually taken pleasure in desecrating the body?
Another paper examined the train itself, coming to the conclusion that the coupler might have been sabotaged to let go on a sharp turn, though, as the train was no longer available for inspection and the writer was only working from reports, it was all speculative.
There was a pause in the papers about El Viejo from the late eighties until about the turn of the century. There were still X rays and a CAT scan and several brief observations, but apparently, the students had found other interests for their term papers.
The research picked up again not long after the human genome project had mapped the whole genome, and interest had been high. There had been plenty of genetic material to work with, and El Viejo's genome had been mapped for years now. Six breathless medical students had written papers that were variations of "Who Was El Viejo? We May Never Fully Know, But…" They had been able to trace his heritage to Oaxaca ("though we don't know if he ever lived there himself"). Careful examination of the non-death related trivia of the body had shown that his fingers were heavily calloused where they would have fallen on guitar strings, so he was almost certainly the musician he'd originally been dressed as. Bone structure showed some evidence of mild malnutrition as in childhood, but there were no marks of disease. The shirt (which was largely fused to the torso) fit him well and seemed to be of quality workmanship, so they had determined that he wasn't an indigent man who'd simply ended up on the wrong side of an argument on a train. He hadn't had any genetic abnormalities. Tía Meche would undoubtedly gloat obnoxiously when she found out that, without question, he was of native origin, with only a few traces of European ancestry. Whether he was Zapotec or Nahua or Mixtec was a subject of some debate because they didn't have much in the way of reference populations (there was a long explanation of this that Enrique didn't follow), but they were able to match him on various ancestry sites to families in Oaxaca, albeit distantly.
Enrique smiled ruefully. Mamá had been itching to do "one of those tests where you spit and they tell you where you come from," but they'd never gotten around to it. That might have popped the whole thing open without Calles needing to work his contacts.
On the other hand, Miguel might have discovered it too quickly and without any preparation.
There was a rapping sound, and he looked up to see Calles standing by the door, his hand still raised. "Are you okay?"
Enrique wasn't sure how to answer this. "I… this is very thorough research."
"Manu's been running the tests. She has to wait for a few, and get a corroborating opinion, before she's willing to commit publicly, but she's personally sure. The match to your grandmother's hair is too close for him to be anything but one of her parents."
"I know. I recognized him when I came in the room." Enrique took his phone from his pocket and brought up a scan of the family photo, enlarging Héctor's face. "Did you doubt it, really?"
"No. I had the picture with me the first time I came. Facial recognition didn't pick it up because of the angle on the photo and the damage to the face on the body -- the cheekbone is dislocated, probably from the crash -- but my eyes are still better than the computer for that." He sat down. "Still, there are doppelgangers in the world. The DNA is more sure than the eye."
"How do I tell my family?" Enrique asked. "How do I tell them that Papá Héctor was turned into a cheap freak show attraction?"
"I'm sure that my message has them worried already," Calles said. "I was vague for a reason. I think they may have worked themselves into thinking something worse, so maybe it will be a relief that it was only humiliating."
Enrique thought this was well-meant, but unlikely to be much comfort to Miguel, who was keenly aware of Papá Héctor's apparent disdain for performing monkeys.
There was nothing else to be done until Manuela's results had come in and been verified, so Calles drove them back to the hotel, where they had an early supper and talked about anything that wasn't mummified.
Enrique went back to his own room afterward and called Luisa. He told her everything. "But I don't want to just tell Miguel over the phone. It's not right. And I should be the one to do it. I saw Papá Héctor. I held his hand. I'll tell Miguel. Just…"
"Enrique, don't put it off. Don't put Miguel off. He's worried sick. I'll get him to the practice room, and we'll call you from there."
He still didn't like the idea of this coming long distance, without being there to put his arms around Miguel, but Luisa would be there. For Miguel. Enrique wouldn't have anyone to hold on to.
And so, the whole family had been gathered in the workshop when Luisa came to get Miguel. Looking at them on the little screen of his phone, which he'd set up on a little stand, gathered in Mamá Coco's old room, with the stolen guitar now hanging on the wall behind them, Enrique wasn't sure he could go through with it.
Miguel stepped forward. "Papá… what is it?"
He stared at his phone for a long time, then found his voice. "We found him," he said. "We found him and I'll make sure he's brought home. That's the important part. But there's more you need to know…"
As he told the story, he watched Miguel melt back. Berto was the one to go to him first and put a steadying arm around him. Luisa held him as well. Rosa wept. Mamá held and comforted her.
When the story was over, Miguel asked if everyone else could leave for a minute. He was crying openly, so he was obviously not trying to cover that up.
"Are you all right, mijo?" Enrique asked.
He shook his head. "Can I come and help?"
"I don't think so. I don't think there's anything for you to do here. But we never would have found him without you."
"Can I help… get him ready… when he comes home? Like Rosa did for Mamá Coco?"
Enrique wasn't sure about this as an idea, but he said, "Yes. Of course. I don't think we'll be able to dress him, though. The body isn't… you can't bend…" He sighed. "I'm sorry."
Miguel looked a little green, but he just nodded. "I'll find him a blanket to keep warm in. Can we clean him up at all?"
"I don't know. I'll ask. And Miguel… will you ask some of your mariachi friends if they'll play for him on the procession? I think he'd like that."
"It'll be okay in the end."
Miguel smiled. "I know. It's starting to be okay now." He frowned. "Papá, who was the student who took him out of a collection and brought him to the doctors?"
"I don't know."
"Could you find out? I want to say thank you. And to Calles, too."
"I'll pass that on to him. Are you going to be all right in school tomorrow?"
Miguel thought about it, then shrugged and nodded.
Enrique held out his arms helplessly. Miguel noticed the gesture and held his own out, putting his hands on the computer screen. It didn't quite work, but they both got the message.