Ratoncito's Last Tooth
by Mike Hill
In all the world, Ratoncito Perez was the strongest man in his lifetime. He was born
into a sort of half life, neither youngest nor oldest in a large family, living in
poverty but not squalor in the no-man's land between city, suburbs and slums, and
so went mostly unnoticed. He was raised almost by default, getting enough to
survive but being given responsibility for the younger ones early in his life,
especially as it was realized that he had incredible strength.
By the time he was three years old, he was bending bars of steel, could break heavy
wooden planks and lift at least three times his own weight.
He never took advantage of his strength, but it was always "Cito, come and lift the
stove, por favor." It was an ancient thing of cast iron. He would tuck a couple of
fingers beneath and a hand on top to steady it and would hoist it up so his mama
could clean beneath it, and then he would return it gently to its place.
The next week his papa would say, "Cito, we have lost the key to this lock, can you
take it off?" and he would give it a poke and it would break.
By the time he was four years old, his only chore was to do those things that took a
stronger man than his father, who never said he was proud of his son. Sometimes
papa seemed to resent being displaced as the strongest.
His mother always told him that he was descended from Samson of the Bible, of
the Tribe of Dan, and made him promise that he would not become a drinker like
his father, and to always use his strength to help his family, being careful never to
After he turned six, he began to lose his great strength - somewhat to his relief -
and he was given more mundane duties around the house. But by the time he was
twelve he had all of his strength back three or four times over, and his father left,
never to return.
Ratoncito worked hard to keep his family well, though it should not have been his
burden. He carried on nevertheless, because he always felt guilty at having shamed
his papa and driven him away.
He often did the heavy lifting in his community; it was always "Cito, go and help
the neighbor raise their new wall," which he did almost without effort, or a call
from the street, "Ratoncito, can you come and take this new dent out of my old
car?" and he would go out and reach in the trunk and push the dent out.
When they would go out to gather a supply of firewood, he would take the ax and
tap the big slabs of hardwood into chunks and splinters. When there was a well to
be dug, he was the one to dig it, with others standing by to clear away the loose
earth and hand him a new shovel every so often.
Ratoncito Perez worked very hard to keep his mother's large family fed, never
taking money for helping his neighbors but only for the "regular" work he did,
when there was any to be had. He would work on building the great, new office
buildings in the city, carrying the iron beams from the crane to where they were
needed on that floor.
As he got older, he began to take pride in his great strength and the awe of his
coworkers, but at home he was just "Cito" and there was always the cast-iron stove
that needed lifting.
Ratoncito had always been careful with his strength, but as his pride grew, his
caution slipped. One day he was swinging a beam around and, unable to watch
both ends at the same time, he struck another worker and knocked him from his
perch, hearing only his cry as he fell to his death. No one blamed him - the man
had moved into Cito's way instead of waiting for him to finish - but Cito
remembered how it felt to bump into him, the surprise and grief of it.
After that, he used his great strength very little except when really needed, and
never to impress; but he continued to work hard to provide for his family, and now
the family of the man he had killed.
The man had an unmarried sister, Amada, and in time they fell in love, married,
and began their own family. She knew of his strength and why he rarely used it,
but when there was real need, neither of them would hesitate.
As his own children began to come, he would watch them carefully for any sign of
the trait that he had been born with, but it seemed to have skipped this generation.
He felt relief that none of his children would have to grow up with the burden that
One night, there was a heavy rain and the old church nearby creaked and groaned
and then collapsed with many people inside. He ran to help as did all the
neighbors, moving great blocks of stone and timbers to rescue the survivors. He
expended more energy that day than he ever had before.
By morning, there was nothing but a ring of debris and the floor of the church,
open to the sky. Many lives had been saved, but as Ratoncito returned home he felt
something hard and loose in his mouth and spit out a tooth, feeling a measure of
strength leave him. He was confused as he had not been struck nor felt any pain
that might indicate he was going to lose a tooth.
His wife greeted him as he arrived and asked about the look on his face. He told
her, "This night's work has cost me a tooth, but it is a little price to pay for so
He realized in that moment, when he said it aloud, that this strength was tied to him
in this way and understood why it had faded from him when he was a child, losing
his milk teeth before his adult teeth had come in.
He also believed that on the day he lost his last tooth, this would be the day that he
As years went by, he had need and reason to use his strength occasionally, but
always his wife sorrowed, for he had told her all he knew or guessed about this
burden that had been placed upon him, and she feared that it was his life he was
giving up a little at a time. But she never said anything to stop him from using his
gift for she understood his belief that he had this strength only to help others.
In time, his children grew up to be loving and strong - but not too strong - in a
household of peace. One by one they moved away to go to school, to fall in love, to
have their own families.
In the course of years, Ratoncito's strength ebbed, for every time he used it to its
utmost, he lost another tooth, so that he became more like other men, stronger in
mind than in body as the years passed.
They had had many grandchildren when Amada became ill. He prayed for her,
asking that he might be able to save her, but knowing that even if he had all his old
strength back he could not help her. He grieved as she faded and died, for the pain
of loss was greater than any strength he possessed.
When he was very old and had just three teeth left in his head, he knew that his
time was short, so he set out on a trip to see his children and grandchildren for
what he thought would be the last time.
He traveled by bus up a long and dangerous road over the mountains and as it
groaned its way up, it began to slip on the muddy track until it slid partly off the
road, one wheel hanging over a precipice, in danger of plummeting many
hundreds of feet off the cliff.
Many people jumped off the bus as it slid, but many more were trapped, some with
children and some with packages they would not relinquish even at the edge of life.
Many were simply frozen with fear.
Ratoncito jumped off, but looking into the faces of the parents and children, he
knew it was time to use the last of the gift he had been given.
He bent his old back and gripped the corner of the bus, delaying but not stopping
its slide. He struggled with it, sweating and shaking, and he spit out a tooth.
Many of those still on the bus got off, but not all, and he looked up to see small
faces pressed against the glass.
He heaved then, groaning with the effort, and felt every limb and ligament
straining. And another tooth, like a hard pebble in his mouth, came away.
Then he looked up to see that nearly all were off the bus, all but three small
children, so like his own grandchildren that he could not allow himself to fail, and
so he made one last effort, clenching his jaw, locking it in place so that his last
tooth, biting into his lower gum, would not come free until the bus was empty, the
last children lifted out by bystanders.
Only then did he feel his strength and his life begin to leave him. He staggered to
the side, letting the empty bus slide and fall over the cliff. He fell to his knees. He
saw an ancient man walk to him, wizened and nearly toothless as well. It was his
"I'm proud of you my boy," he said. "You saved them all."
Then Cito felt the last of his strength leave him, and he bowed his head as he
toppled over into the mud. His hands were so weak he could not raise himself, but
his heart was full and strong.
Opening his mouth, he pushed out the last tooth with his tongue, and died.