By Gerardo Fulleda León
Translated from the Spanish by David Lisenby
Volume 8, Issue 1 (Spring 2020)
Presenting the Odyssean saga of an enslaved boy’s flight from the plantation to freedom in nineteenth-century Cuba, Gerardo Fulleda’s Rwandi (1977), Ruandi in Spanish, is the only work of children’s theatre among his two dozen plays. It is also his most widely performed play, having been staged in Latin America, Europe, and the U.S.—in Spanish, German, and French, though never in English, to date.
Rwandi amuses young audiences with playful language, often through intercalated poetry meant to be sung, at the same time that the play raises awareness of historical oppression with present-day implications. Translating Rwandi to English presented challenges in rendering rhyme, meter, and abundant figurative devices, which are not merely ornamental flourishes but rather engender a vibrancy that radically humanizes victims of slavery’s brutality. An additional issue in the translation process was the need to preserve the play’s Cuban cultural specificity. For example, in English for U.S. audiences, the word “plantation” evokes scenes of cotton in the American South, where there should instead be sugar cane on a Caribbean landscape. Nonetheless, “plantation” appropriately calls to mind the racist system of human exploitation that for centuries bolstered the national economies of both the U.S. and Cuba, and so functions well in translation. In other instances I have retained some Spanish in the English text, such as the word palenque to signify a community of runaway slaves deep in the hinterlands. Since its meaning is clear in the context of the play, and since English lacks a parallel term, and since replacing it with “community of runaway slaves deep in the hinderlands” undeniably breaks the rhythm and tone of the text, I decided the Spanish should remain. Similarly, English audiences will hear a smattering of Spanish in character names and references to Cuban flora and fauna, such as the ceiba tree and the jicotea turtle, both of which are imbued with mystical powers by Afro-Cuban spiritual tradition. In this way I have sought to present “the foreign as foreign,” as translation theorist Antoine Berman endorses, in a way that is in balance with the imperative that Rwandi be pleasurable and readily comprehensible to audiences of all ages in (mostly) monolingual performance in English.
Productions of Rwandi have adapted the published playscript’s twelve episodic scenes in selective ways, sometimes abridging dialogue within scenes and sometimes omitting whole episodes altogether, allowing flexibility for constraints such as cast size, show length, language, and musical resources. The 2015 German tradaptation Ruandi und Levi, for example, elides the title protagonist’s encounter with a lecturing owl named Lechuza Profusa, a section packed with comedically mangled proverbs, diminutive expressions, and eye-roll-inducing puns that resist close translation. And a 2007 production by New York’s IATI group skips the near-death dream sequence that brings nearly all characters together at once, and thus necessitates more actors than the show’s cast contained. In consultation with the playwright and also with the director and actors of the Jewell Theatre Company, whose April 2019 developmental reading of this translation was instrumental for honing the characters’ voices in English, I decided to retain all elements of the published Spanish version of the play, reissued most recently in 2015 by Editorial Gente Nueva. Along with Rwandi’s history of playwright-sanctioned adaptation in production, the playscript’s sparse stage directions invite, if not require, each production to interpret the work anew.
Gerardo Fulleda León (1942, Santiago de Cuba), winner of Cuba’s 2014 National Theatre Award, is the author of twenty-four plays and was General Director of the Rita Montaner Theatre Company in Havana from 1988 until his 2014 retirement. He belongs to a generation of writers and artists who came of age following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, receiving his theatrical training in the Primer Seminario de Dramaturgia taught by Argentine playwright Osvaldo Dragún from 1961 to 1963, which aimed to cultivate a generation of revolutionary playwrights in Cuba. In addition to Rwandi, Fulleda’s Azogue (1979), Plácido (1982), and Chago de Guisa (1989) also reclaim the humanity of black and mulato protagonists in slaveholding Cuba who journey, literally and metaphorically, from the plantation to the palenque. These plays redress racial injustice while navigating restrictions on freedom of expression in Castro’s Cuba, where overtly highlighting present-day racial inequalities would be anathema to the Revolution’s claim to have eradicated racism in the 1960s, and therefore politically implausible. In this context, historically-set theatre prompts audiences to draw parallels between the dramatized past and their own lived realities in the present. The attention to marginalized subjectivities extends from Fulleda’s colonial-era plays to include works with contemporary settings such as Remendios (1993), Betún (1995), and Remolino en las aguas (1999), which tackle issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation in twentieth-century settings. Fulleda’s most recent piece, a monologue in the voice of nineteenth-century writer Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda titled La pasión desobediente (2014), foretells the leveling of inequalities rooted in gender, race, social class, sexual orientation, and nationality, and in so doing synthesizes the ethos of his socially-engaged theatre developed over more than a half century. In the whole of Fulleda’s work, the celebration of his characters’ humanity is always also a celebration of their Cubanness. He resides in Cerro, Havana.
David Lisenby (Ph.D. 2012, University of Kansas) is Associate Professor of Spanish at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. His academic articles and literary translations appear in Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, Chasqui, Afro-Hispanic Review, Words Without Borders, Two Lines, Latin American Literature Today, Cuba Counterpoints, Island in the Light / Isla en la luz, Exchanges, and elsewhere. An article forthcoming in A Contracorriente explores how Gerardo Fulleda’s historical theatre—including Rwandi, Plácido, and La pasión desobediente—enacts a struggle for justice through prophetic and poetic language, where the inequities of Cuba’s slaveholding, colonial era fuel an ongoing struggle to realize egalitarian ideals on the island.
For Jesús Abascal, in living memory.
Friends, I wish not to write a single line without at least an ounce of love. But it isn’t easy, I assure you. Love—like that small seed we give to the earth in just the right season to one day grow into a stalk of corn, a lemon tree, or a rose—requires our effort, our care, and our hope, to till the soil and nourish the earth. And later the seed will need protection from wind and cold, from storms and weeds, from hungry wanderers and daring insects. Among these dangers is where we are headed. So grant me pardon, friends, if I cannot simply speak of love, for now, as I’d like. When the small tree you play around today grows full size and gives peaceful shade and sweet fruit, when the strong young trunk becomes thick and tough and legendary, remember me then. And please, when that time comes, share with me; tell me about the colors and flavors, the smells and the splendor of that full grown love that will one day flourish among humankind.
A play in twelve scenes
Characters (in order of appearance)
Poet: narrator figure, of the audience’s present time
Father: bumbling plantation owner, around 40 years old
Belina: kind daughter of the plantation owner, near Rwandi’s age
Grandma Minga: wise older slave, born in Africa
Rwandi: determined 11-year-old slave protagonist
Tina: Belina’s doll
Duke DeSleuth: troubadour guard dog tasked with tracking Rwandi
Ceiba Tree: appears to Rwandi as a many-armed monster
Lechuza Profusa: absurd, loquacious, professorial owl
Pepo: vulture, thief, and aspiring fighter pilot
Pupo: Pepo’s counterpart
Ms. Jicotea: resolute turtle (a Cuban slider)
Ms. Piedra: adventurous rock
White Scorpion: a dispassionate threat
Girl of the River: water spirit with flowing, treacherous hair
Sun: hard-working celestial orb
Time and place: Mid-nineteenth-century Cuba, Matanzas province, on a sugar plantation and in the forest beyond.
The tree is not the mountain,
Like a drop is not the river;
Give me your hand in friendship,
And we will be mountain and river.
A petal is not a rose,
Like a bird is not a nest;
Give me your hand in friendship,
And we will be rose and nest.
A pebble is not the beach,
Like the cloud is not the sky;
Give me your hand in friendship,
And we will be beach and sky.
Poet addresses the audience directly.
Good evening to you all! Today I want to tell you the tale of a boy. He was not a prince or a philosopher. But he could have been someone who passes by and then builds a tower that makes us raise our eyes in amazement. Or perhaps a caring teacher. Or maybe one who strings together those strong and delicate sounds, silences, and words we call a song. Oh, but the boy in our story did not live in these days that shine on you and me! His was another time: gray, full of hurtful sounds, of countless injustices; and also full of yearning, thirsting for light among many darknesses and many men. This boy was a slave. No, I am not going to tell you what a slave was. You’ll learn that much better in books that explain the painful mark of history. Today I wish only for us to walk alongside this boy – for us to know his dreams, his doubts, and his worries in the senselessness of his time. But no more words for now. Let us go nearly two centuries back, into the big house of a sugar plantation in the Cuban province of Matanzas. One evening at the end of summer when the sky is tinged red, and a warm, sorrowful breeze covers all. That is the time when…
Father enters with a whip in his hand, followed by Belina and Grandma Minga.
FATHER: No, no, and no. It is decided already!
BELINA: But why, Daddy?
FATHER: Because he is irresponsible and unbearable.
BELINA: What’s so bad about dreaming?
MINGA: That’s the question! Yes sir!
FATHER: Quiet. Enough! A slave boy who tends the oxen cannot dream. No, ma’am.
BELINA: And where does it say that?
FATHER: Well, how should I know! That’s just the way it is.
BELINA: Daddy, but don’t the oxen dream too?
FATHER: But an ox is an ox, like a fish out of water is a filet.
BELINA: And Rwandi is Rwandi!
MINGA: That’s right. That’s it to a T.
FATHER: (to Minga) You be quiet! (to Belina) Don’t call him that. That ox-boy’s name is Martín. MAR-TÍN! Who’s ever heard of a king named Oscar or a dressmaker named Penelope? Would it ever occur to you to give a cook the beautiful name of Isabella? Never! Every job has its name, and for every name there is a job. And a slave boy who leads the oxen by the nose, because that is the task on the plantation he poorly performs, that slave should be called the ox-boy Martín. And that’s it! No more commotion or notions of anything else!
BELINA: But isn’t Rwandi a nicer name? Isn’t it? He’s from Rwanda, a place way over there, they say, in the middle of Africa almost, where his parents came from. Daddy, have you ever been there? On the maps…
FATHER: (interrupting) No, I’ve never even thought about it. I’ve never even thought about thinking about it. And don’t try to go teaching me about geology.
BELINA: It’s geography, Daddy, geography.
FATHER: (to Minga) And what are you laughing at? (to Belina) Geography, geology, none of it matters one bit if that Martín, if that Twandi, as you call him, takes a nap and the oxen go wherever they feel like. Do you know how much it would cost me if one of those carts turned over? No? Well, at least as much as a hundred dresses like that one you’ve got on. And that’s what matters!
BELINA: I have too many anyway.
FATHER: Don’t be silly! A pretty girl needs lots of dresses, lots of ribbons, lots of flowers.
BELINA: Daddy, isn’t a rose a pretty flower?
FATHER: Well, I guess. So what?
BELINA: A rose always wears the same clothes, and still… Look how pretty she is!
MINGA: That’s right. Yes sir, I agree.
FATHER: (to Minga) Mind your own business. (to Belina) There’s no sense in arguing. You don’t know anything about anything. And no doubt that Lwandi deserves some of the credit.
BELINA: He’s my friend.
FATHER: You mean to say your toy or your servant. Who’s ever seen a nice little girl who’s friends with a slave boy?
BELINA: Well, look. We teach each other lots of things. I taught him the six times table and the four times table…
MINGA: And just like that.
FATHER: And what about five?
BELINA: He doesn’t know that one.
FATHER: But, but… But it’s unheard-of, outrageous to learn times six after times four! Things should be learned in order. Otherwise, it’s like wearing your raincoat in the house. Ridiculous! That Kwandi, or whatever he’s called, won’t ever learn anything serious. Nothing! Not Latin or any other dead languages.
MINGA: Listen to that gibberish.
BELINA: Well, look. He knows the language Grandma Minga speaks really well. And it’s beautiful! If you heard it, I know you’d think so. And guess what. He also knows the names of all the trees in the forest and what they’re good for. Listen: cedar leaves are for headaches; avocado flowers are for making Tuesdays happy; plum blossoms are for washing your hair; canistel branches are for holding up paper; and carnation stems…
FATHER: For giving you both a good spanking! And enough of the superstitions and silliness.
Belina walks away, grumbling.
MINGA: Belina! Belina!
BELINA: (buttering him up) You know what, Daddy? When I listen to you, it sounds like a thousand lovely goldfinches singing at once.
FATHER: Well, now.
BELINA: And when you talk, like right now, it’s like a bright star in the night sky.
FATHER: Well, well, well.
BELINA: So, Dad… Daddy, will you let Rwandi stay here?
FATHER: No! Noo! It’s not possible. I already promised him as a gift to your Aunt Leonor.
BELINA: He’s a person, not a present. People can’t just be given away.
FATHER: Who taught you those arguments? Who?
FATHER: (interrupting) You see? I can’t have one moment of peace. This has got to be Swandi’s fault. We’ve got to pull this thing out by the roots. I’ve been too soft letting him play with you when he’s done working. And look how it’s turned out! That’s it. He’ll leave for Havana. And you, to a boarding school. (to Minga) Move aside, old witch!
BELINA: Daddy, Daddy, you know what? When you sing, the goldfinches hide.
BELINA: And when you talk like now, the bright star goes out.
FATHER: Ahh! Rebellion in my house! Rebellion! The blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh. My little girl treats me like a villain! And she takes sides with that Fwandi, Twandi, Nwandi, Mwandi… And… Martín will leave for Havana!
POET: Word spreads quickly of what the plantation master has ordered, like a sharp wind that enters through a window and knocks over vases, scatters photographs, and chills the blood in your veins. Rwandi is going, that same afternoon, to see the woman everyone calls Grandma Minga, the most respected and wise among the slaves on the plantation. He finds her in the back of the garden where the butterflies and picuala flowers are, as calm and tender as fertile earth.
Grandma Minga prepares her cigar while Rwandi watches her, sitting on the ground.
You who come from the land
Where I first opened my eyes,
Tell me, does that tree still give shade,
The fruit tree I learned to climb?
You who come from the war
Where my brother died,
Tell me, does that tree still give shade,
The fruit tree I learned to climb?
You who come from the mountains
Where I grew up near the sky,
Tell me, does that tree still give shade,
The fruit tree I learned to climb?
(addressing Rwandi) Through the roots of the tree we can know its trunk; and through its branches, the sky. And your sky, my child, is very cloudy. The master has made his decision, and begging and crying won’t do any good.
RWANDI: Grandma Minga, I don’t want to go.
MINGA: A moment comes when we all must say goodbye to what we love. My Rwandi, I too, one day not long from now, will leave this path you see and will start a journey toward an ocean where no one arrives awake.
RWANDI: And are you going to take me with you?
MINGA: Not then, my Rwandi, not then.
RWANDI: Grandma Minga, take me with you. Take me, please. I’ll behave. I promise. I won’t shout anymore at naptime or lick the dessert plate or trap lizards in the backyard. But take me, Grandma Minga! Take me with you!
MINGA: My Rwandi, I can’t. I won’t be able to.
MINGA: Rwandi, come now…
RWANDI: (interrupting) I won’t act like this anymore either, Grandma, you’ll see. And especially not in front of grown-ups. But take me, please.
MINGA: My Rwandi, that trip is almost always taken alone, even when hundreds go with us.
RWANDI: Grandma Minga, I don’t understand. I don’t understand.
MINGA: You don’t have to know everything today. You will learn in time. You’ll learn.
RWANDI: Grandma Minga, I want to know everything now, everything.
MINGA: You are very impatient, my Rwandi, very impatient. But I’ve already told you everything you should know for the time being.
RWANDI: Grandma, don’t confuse me on purpose. You haven’t said anything to help me understand.
MINGA: Humph! For now it is enough for you to know just enough. Listen, the water in the river looks blue and dark. When you swim in it, it’s clear and sweet. But when you drink it, it’s smooth and cool and calms your thirst. Right now, you are only looking at the water.
RWANDI: So, Grandma Minga, what should I do?
MINGA: Start the journey. Swim in the water of life. Drink it a sip at a time, without hurry but without hesitation. Until you’re able to see the difference between water from a well and water from a river—between water from a pond and the brilliant, babbling stream that flows from a fresh spring.
RWANDI: Grandma. Grandma Minga. Why don’t you take me to the palenque, then? Huh? In the meantime, huh? Deep in the forest and up in the hills! You say all the people who live at the palenque used to be slaves like us before they made it there.
MINGA: Humph! First you would need to learn a lot of things.
RWANDI: Tell me what, Grandma Minga. Tell me what!
MINGA: I’ve told you a thousand times, Rwandi, a thousand times. Don’t you think I would have taken you away from this place if I could have? If I could have… Goodness! If I could!
RWANDI: Maybe I can get to the palenque!
MINGA: You? By yourself?
RWANDI: Yes, me. Don’t laugh! I’m almost twelve years old, and if you tell me how, who knows if… well…
MINGA: You wouldn’t be able to yet, my Rwandi. You wouldn’t be able. Think about how sad it’s made you to see the scars on my back from the overseer’s whip, years ago, when I tried to run away? No, gentle hugs are not what I’ve received from my masters, for wanting to be free like the birds and the wind.
RWANDI: (upset) Grandma Minga!
MINGA: No, no need for that. Humph! Do you know what? A drop of water doesn’t make a river. And one man alone doesn’t build a bridge or a town, Rwandi. Look, the birds in the air might seem small and fragile, but they’re very strong. And do you know why? Because they always go together, and that makes them powerful. When you are older, you and the other house slaves in Havana will gather together, and you’ll understand then what I’m about to tell you. When…
POET: And so the good Grandma Minga reveals her secrets once more, one by one, to restless Rwandi. What dreams, what yearning is awakened in Rwandi by the wise words, these beautiful legends of the ancestors’ struggle? We do not yet know. But let us see what happens a little later, while the masters eat dinner with clattering plates and forks, and in the slave quarters the day is closing with weariness and a crust of bread. At that hour, in some corner of the big house…
Belina, with her doll Tina, gives a sack to Rwandi.
BELINA: Here you go.
RWANDI: Is everything here?
RWANDI: The rope?
BELINA: The rope too.
RWANDI: Good… but… are you crying?
BELINA: No, it’s Tina.
RWANDI: Did she come to say goodbye?
BELINA: Yes. Guess what! She lost a tooth yesterday.
RWANDI: Really? You should take her to a doctor fast, in a carriage.
BELINA: In Havana they were going to teach you to be a carriage driver.
RWANDI: I wouldn’t like that job.
BELINA: Take me with you, Rwandi!
RWANDI: I can’t. They’d be after us in no time. You’re too young. The palenque is far away. I already explained.
BELINA: You already explained. Everything is explained in books too, and sometimes I don’t understand anything.
RWANDI: Because you probably don’t know how to read them.
BELINA: I do know. Who do you think taught you to read, huh? But what I mean is books can only tell you some things. Like, they tell you autumn is the season that comes after summer when the leaves turn yellow and the days get shorter. But they don’t tell you that in the afternoons you get tired and don’t know what to do and get a lump in your throat. And suddenly you don’t know what to say and your hands can’t hold onto your toys and your ribbons, and your eyes get cloudy from sadness like when you have to say goodbye to your grandparents.
RWANDI: I should go, Belina.
BELINA: Stay a few more days. Maybe if I talk with Daddy again I can convince him, and he’ll leave you here on the plantation.
RWANDI: So I can keep minding the oxen my whole life and get hunchback before I turn 20? And when I’m big and something goes wrong with an ox, get put in the stocks for punishment?
BELINA: No, Rwandi. No.
RWANDI: Or turn all quiet and dumb like the ones who serve in the big house? “Yes, master, I’ll clean your boots till they shine like glass. No, master, I don’t need rest, ever.”
RWANDI: And if I say anything to complain, get whipped by the overseer?
BELINA: No! Go quick, Rwandi. Wait, take this.
RWANDI: What is it?
BELINA: The green ribbon you used to like in my hair. Keep it. It’ll help you.
RWANDI: Thanks. Bye, Belina.
BELINA: Aren’t you going to say goodbye to Tina?
RWANDI: Oh, Tina! (sings or speaks)
Something in you tells me
This dream can really be:
Like a wise word
Grandma whispers in my ear.
BELINA: (sings or speaks)
Something in you tells me
Good luck can really be:
Like a long nap
In the house we shared.
And that’s why when I look
Into your eyes I see:
Something in you tells me
Without you I can’t be here.
RWANDI: (giving the doll a kiss on the forehead) Goodbye, Tina. Take care. You’re… you’re the nicest, smartest doll I’ve ever met in my life. I’ll come back. I’ll come back to… to find you and explore the forest together and hold your hand while we run through the trees. Goodbye! (leaves running)
BELINA: Bye, Rwandi. Bye, bye, bye…
POET: Run, Rwandi, run and don’t look back because if you did you wouldn’t be able to go on after seeing the warm tears in Belina’s misty eyes. Nor would she understand that damp shaking in your hands. Run, Rwandi!
But before leaving the property of the plantation, near the fence that surrounds the yard, Rwandi meets…
The dog Duke DeSleuth growls when Rwandi enters with his sack.
DUKE: Grrr. Woof! Who goes there? Who is it? What do you want?
RWANDI: Stop barking, Duke! It’s me, Rwandi. Put on your glasses. Don’t you recognize me?
DUKE: (Putting on glasses.) Ah, now I can smell you. Who wouldn’t know that great fence-jumper Racin’ Rwandi?
RWANDI: I’ve beaten you to the road and back plenty of times, Duke.
DUKE: By playing tricks… But… why haven’t you ever guessed where I hide the bones, ruh?
RWANDI: That’s easy. It’s just that I don’t want to give away your secret.
DUKE: You don’t say. Then where do I hide them, ruh?
RWANDI: Well, under the meat.
DUKE: What wisdom!
RWANDI: Have I upset the great hound Duke DeSleuth?
DUKE: I’m a mutt, sir, and proud to be.
RWANDI: Whatever you say, Mister Mutt.
DUKE: And, changing the subject… What, may I ask, are you looking for around here, outside the slaves’ barracks this time of night?
RWANDI: Nothing. Taking a walk.
DUKE: Taking a walk? At this hour? Come on, be honest and admit you came to delight yourself with my singing. Admit it!
RWANDI: No, no. I mean… Yes, yes!
DUKE: Ah, I bet you haven’t heard the new one I’ve written. It’s a marvel!
RWANDI: You don’t say.
DUKE: Do you doubt it?
RWANDI: No, of course not. Of course not! It’s just that…
DUKE: (interrupting) Well, listen then. For its international premier, Duke’s “Opus No. 43”! (singing)
The cat who hunts the mice,
In other words, the mouser,
Is all moused-up at home
‘Cause he can’t find his trouser.
Ms. Assumption, the frog,
Shows off with presumption
Her lime-green-shaded tail
Which lacks apparent function.
The parrot known as Sebastian,
In order to be a policeman,
Studies in the sheep pen.
The parrot known as Sebastian.
What do you think? Say something. C’mon. You’re speechless.
RWANDI: I… I really don’t know anything about music. I’d rather…
DUKE: (interrupting) Well, you’re really on the wrong track. Very wrong. We dogs have a finely developed musical sense. That is, for our music, which bothers most adult humans, of course… They’re hardened! Canine music is rich in nuance and subtlety. Of all the animals, we are the master singers. Who would dare deny that a bark is ten times more melodious than a canary’s song? Only a canary would, of course. Haven’t you heard my “Ode to the Moon”? That has been one of the preferred themes of the dog community for centuries upon centuries. You must not have heard mine. I can sing it for you right now in two hundred sixty-two variations that go from lamenting, passing through vicious, all the way to euphoric.
RWANDI: Not now, Duke. Some other day you can sing them all for me. I don’t have time today. I still have a long way to go.
DUKE: A long way? What are you taking besides your feet?
RWANDI: I have to go, Duke, really.
DUKE: What? You’re crazy. That’s impossible. Does the master know you’re leaving?
RWANDI: No, only you and I know it.
DUKE: Now, wait just a minute.
RWANDI: Please don’t bark, Duke. Listen. You have to help me.
DUKE: Have to help you what? Turn into a runaway?
RWANDI: Give me a chance, Duke. Aren’t you still my friend?
DUKE: I am, but… whippings are whippings!
RWANDI: Maybe not. I’ve got your alibi right here. Look. (pulling out a bottle) Smell it.
DUKE: Aaachoo! Put away that pepper, Rwandi! Put it away!
RWANDI: See, I sprinkle just a little bit over here and over there…
DUKE: And I catch a nasty ailment of the nose.
RWANDI: But now you can say that since there’s no moon tonight, you didn’t see me. And because of the pepper I sprinkled around, you didn’t smell me… Understand?
DUKE: Ok, ok, ok. Anything for friendship. It won’t be the first time I’ve helped a runaway.
RWANDI: I’ll always be grateful, Duke DeSleuth.
DUKE: That’s what friends are for. Now, remember. Tomorrow when they discover you’re missing, they’ll make me track you. And even if I can trick them for a little while…
RWANDI: I’ll be long gone, Duke, I promise. By that time I’ll have already crossed the river.
DUKE: I’ll hold them off until evening, ok? If you haven’t crossed by then, I won’t have any choice but to…
RWANDI: (interrupting) I understand. Deal. Put ‘er there!
DUKE: The poor stars tonight won’t have this tenor to sing and howl to them! Achoo!
POET: And Rwandi takes off, as if he had wheels for feet. The open air fills his lungs and opens his shirt, and his arms feel lighter than ever. He travels quickly, covering a good deal of ground without even losing his breath. He enters the forest he had always dreamed of crossing, when he used to gaze at it from afar while prodding the oxen. There he goes scampering over fallen tree trunks, pushing aside branches and avoiding thorny bushes. There he goes, free and light like the wind.
RWANDI: (stopping) Whoa! I must be pretty far now. You can’t hear the songs from the slaves’ quarters. Only some far-off barking and the sound of the wind in the trees. It’s so quiet! I’ll rest just a little. I’m not one bit sleepy. I shouldn’t sleep at night. That’s when I can get farther ahead. But if I had some light to see it would be better. It’s so dark here. And it’s cold all of a sudden! I’ll make a little campfire. That’s it. No one’ll see it from the plantation. Then the cold will go away and I can see… What part of the forest could this be? (building the fire) I hope Grandma Minga doesn’t get upset when she goes to check on me before bed. No, she’ll probably think I’m wandering around the big house or the yard catching fireflies. Those would do me some good in this darkness! I wonder what the palenque is like. Will they take me in? Ahh, that heat is so nice!
A mysterious noise is heard. The fire flickers. When Rwandi sees the Ceiba tree, it looks to him like an enormous hundred-armed beast.
RWANDI: Who’s over there? Who is that?
CEIBA: That’s what I want to know. Who dares light a fire so close to the mighty Ceiba tree?
RWANDI: I didn’t know you were there.
CEIBA: Well now you know. What? Did I scare you?
RWANDI: (trembling) No. What makes you think I was scared?
CEIBA: Then why are you shaking?
RWANDI: I’m not shaking.
CEIBA: You’re not shaking? (laughing) Of course not. Ho!
RWANDI: Careful. Don’t laugh like that. You’ll put out the fire and…
CEIBA: (interrupting) …and then you’ll be in the dark again.
RWANDI: You won’t do that.
CEIBA: Who says so? Look. Do you see my arms?
CEIBA: They’re so long, without moving I could smash that fire, and with one of them I could grab you from a hundred yards away if you try to run.
RWANDI: I’m not planning to.
CEIBA: (laughing menacingly) Ho! Just one of my fingers can knock down a horse, snatch a kite from the sky, block your way.
RWANDI: Why would you do that?
CEIBA: To keep you from getting where you’re going.
RWANDI: I need to go. You have no right to stop me.
CEIBA: Ho! I’m your main enemy, you know. You’re no match for me!
RWANDI: I haven’t done anything to hurt you.
CEIBA: No? And that fire that could devour me in the blink of an eye? You deserve a good whipping you won’t soon forget. And they should punish you with three days in a room alone without seeing anybody. Only bread and water! (laughing) Ho! You’re already lost. You’ll be running back to the slave quarters again, crying like what you are… a naughty, ridiculous boy who thinks he’s a hero! A silly, scared kid who stops and turns around as soon as things get hard because he doesn’t know what he really wants.
RWANDI: I do know what I want. I do! And I’m not scared. I’m not!
CEIBA: Ho, ho! You’re not? Now you’ll see! (Ceiba blows and puts out the fire.)
RWANDI: What did you do? Why’d you put out the fire?
CEIBA: So you’ll go ahead and admit you’re afraid.
RWANDI: (crying) No, no. Grandma Minga, help me conquer my fear. Help me, Grandma Minga.
Grandma Minga appears.
MINGA: Fear can be the first enemy you find when you start down a path. He can make you believe a rabbit has turned into a beast before your eyes, that the night is never going to end. And even that a simple tree, a Ceiba, looks like the most terrible monster in the forest. If you overcome your initial fear, you’ll win a great battle.
RWANDI: How, Grandma Minga? How?
MINGA: Humph! My Rwandi, fear walks only within us. He is not like the cold or the heat. The night gets cold, and we bundle up. The sun presses down, and all of us sweat. But I say, “I am afraid,” and no one else feels it. Well, unless they too are stripped down.
RWANDI: Stripped down?
MINGA: Yes, stripped of strength.
RWANDI: And what do you do to be sure you’re protected, full of strength, Grandma Minga?
MINGA: Humph! Well, you look for the presence of something that strengthens us, of course.
MINGA: If you are with a friend, it’s easy. If not, it’s enough to remember someone you love, someone who laughs with you or hopes for what you have to achieve.
MINGA: Hmm. Then fear will disappear like magic. It’s as simple as a lullaby. We all can do it.
RWANDI: All of us? Me too?
(sings while trying to light the fire again)
The Moon does not want to sleep
On top of the far barren hill.
She wants to sleep on your pillow
Safe from the cold air’s chill.
She doesn’t want to spend the night
Awake high up in the air.
She wants to be on your blue bed
And play with her light on your hair.
She doesn’t want to leave quietly
When morning arrives in the forest.
She wants to stay in your heart
And dream there where it is warmest.
The monstrous Ceiba turns into what it is, a simple ceiba tree. Grandma Minga disappears.
RWANDI: How silly I am! It’s just a ceiba tree!
LECHUZA: (appears wearing a biretta, holding a cane, and speaking with an overly affected professorial tone) Bravo, bravo, little boy! You won! And all thanks to my good advice.
RWANDI: Your good advice? With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?
LECHUZA: Well, with the professor of prosopopoeia, onomatopoeia, and other subjects from Pompeii-a, Ms. Lechuza Profusa!
RWANDI: Ah, nice to meet you. Rwandi, at your service.
LECHUZA: I’ve heard it all. And you’ve demonstrated, once again, an important point: that a little teaching, comma, taught by me, comma, forms the foundation for success, period.
RWANDI: That sounds like the moral of a story.
LECHUZA: Well, of course. What little event, without a little moral, would have a little meaning?
RWANDI: Some morals are very boring.
LECHUZA: Little boys like you are what’s boring.
RWANDI: More like little stories about little pigeons in little puddles.
LECHUZA: What silliness of yours.
RWANDI: That’s what I think about the way you talk.
LECHUZA: Bah! Do you know how my little grandmother used to sleep?
RWANDI: I can imagine. They read her the little adventures of the wise little owl.
LECHUZA: No, little sir.
RWANDI: Maybe the stories of the boastful little lion?
LECHUZA: No and no, sir, no.
RWANDI: Don’t get confused, Ms. Profuse, or you’ll lose your muse.
LECHUZA: I’m not confused, and much less bemused. And who do you think you are? I have a diploma for something, dis-honorary degree. And I write in perfect rhyme and meter. And even if my words add up to zero, I manage to say them with just the right airs. Surely (loses her composure) you don’t know my latest brainteaser.
RWANDI: I don’t have time to listen to you. Excuse me.
LECHUZA: What a shame! Well, since everything has its moral, here it is…
RWANDI: Not again. Morals are for old women who drink whiskey and boil beans.
LECHUZA: That’s enough. I’ll sweeten the soup with pepper sauce.
RWANDI: Whatever you want. It’s you that’ll get food poisoning, not me. Bye, Professor Lechuza Profusa. Pardon me, Obtuse-ah! I mean, Confuse-ah!
LECHUZA: You are atrocious! Listen to me, kid. Don’t waste your time on escapades. Stay here conversing with me. You know something? You should go to my school. There I’d teach you proclamation with pretention, and thus you’d forget any previously promulgated pontifications.
RWANDI: You can keep your school! I have a long way left to walk. One day I’ll go to a real school.
LECHUZA: What impertinence! I am sorry to have met you. You are impossible, like all boys who believe themselves to be brave. You know what? Petulance must be like a well-tailored little suit, which one pretends to have been born wearing.
RWANDI: There you go with your first moral.
LECHUZA: And here comes the second, quote, “the virtue of staying quiet is known only by those who have no tongue.” And I have quite a sharp one.
RWANDI: Let’s be done. The first was better.
LECHUZA: And here is the third: do good if you don’t want to be done harm by those who care little for you. And I do not care about you.
RWANDI: That’s the worst of all. Good-bye.
LECHUZA: You are undeniably mouthy. And your conversation bores me.
RWANDI: We agree on something. See you around, or not.
LECHUZA: Never again. I’m going in search of a mouse. (proclaiming her garbled proverbs with utter conviction) As they say, you can lead a horse to water, but the greener grass is always on the right side. Thus the early bird does indeed get worms. Since nothing is more blinding than the soles of your shoes. That’s why the fox knows more than a rich man in paradise. Nevertheless, don’t put off until tomorrow getting grease for the squeaky wheel. (Rwandi tries to take off.) Because in the end, the streetlamp lights the glass house. (Rwandi escapes.) Wait, wait, wait, young man, I’m not finished yet. Wait… Bah! Have you ever seen such a thing? He left me with the words still in my mouth. Well, like I was saying, the hunt for the hunter…
POET: Not one more, please. Let’s follow our friend. He is continuing on his path, sure that not every lesson is a good one. But, anyway, pardon me. I landed on a moral! Where can he have gone? But… look where he is! He’s fallen asleep for the night in a forest clearing, right by a dead alenque tree full of vultures! Why are they observing Rwandi so closely? Why are they flapping around him and his traveling sack? Let’s go wake him up. He’s rested a good while already. It’s getting too late, or very early. In a moment the Sun will show its face and… Rwandi, wake up! Wake up, Rwandi!
Two vultures, the brothers Pepo and Pupo, interrogate Rwandi, frequently talking over one another. They come armed and accompanied by other vultures.
PEPO: It’s about time you woke up…
PUPO: …and paid attention to us.
RWANDI: Have I been asleep for a long time?
PEPO: Be polite and tell us good morning…
PUPO: …since it’s not night or afternoon.
RWANDI: I don’t have much time; good morning.
PUPO: Well we don’t either…
PEPO: …and let’s get to the point.
RWANDI: But quick. I have to keep going.
PUPO: This is my brother Pepo…
PEPO: …and my brother Pupo.
RWANDI: What is it you want?
PEPO: That’s not the tone you want to take.
PUPO: Here you have to respect us.
RWANDI: Ah, so you two are tough guys?
PEPO: Very tough. Right, Pupo?
PUPO: Absolutely tough, Pepo.
RWANDI: Yeah, well with faces like those, what other choice do you have? I don’t have time for this tough guy stuff.
PEPO: Hey, hey, kid, one second.
PUPO: (blocking his way) Just where exactly do you think you’re going?
RWANDI: That’s no business of yours. Grandma Minga says not to waste time on people who act like you two. And I agree!
PUPO: In all my days as a turkey vulture, never have I heard such an offense. And you, Pepo?
PEPO: Never before, Pupo.
RWANDI: Well you have now, and goodbye.
PUPO: Stop right there…
PEPO: …if you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep real quiet.
RWANDI: Hey! Who do you think you are?
PUPO: Open that sack right now…
PEPO: …quick, before my feathers get ruffled.
RWANDI: I’m not going to.
PEPO: Oh, no? Sound the alarm, Pupo.
PUPO: As you order, Pepo.
VULTURES: (as a military chant)
Who’s that up there in the sky?
Vultures, vultures, see ‘em fly.
Man the weapons, man the guns.
Vultures gonna make ‘em run.
All the vultures fly in circles, as in a military maneuver, and land in a tree.
RWANDI: Looks like this is getting ugly.
PEPO: And it’ll get uglier if you don’t go along…
PUPO: …all of us are ready to attack.
RWANDI: But what do you want? My food? I don’t have much.
PEPO: Hand over everything you’ve got in that sack.
PUPO: All or nothing. The sack or your life.
RWANDI: If that’s all it is, I’ll gladly oblige. (opens the sack, looks in it, and takes out a stick)
PUPO: And what is that? That’s…
PEPO: …not what we want.
RWANDI: But it’s what I plan to give you. Now come closer for a taste! (waving the stick threateningly)
PEPO: Ah, troublemaker, now you’ll see. Fly, Pupo!
PUPO: Ah, rabble-rouser, now you’ll see. (to the other vultures) Fly, Beto. Fly, Chucho!
Up on your left foot, down on your right.
Early every morning, late every night.
Vultures, vultures, where have you been?
Up in the air and down again.
In a choreographed battle, the vultures attack Rwandi like fighter planes, trying to scare him. He defends himself with the stick. They go back to the tree.
PEPO: (as a radio dispatch) Lieutenant Pepo reporting to General Pupo on the events of unequal combat, carried out early this morning. The state of the troops: three vultures with slight contusions to the wings. One with lost feathers, two with trauma to the claws. Another with a foot twisted permanently to the right; and a final one with a wringed neck; wrung, I meant to say.
RWANDI: Do you give up?
PEPO: Never! There’s a reason we’re the toughest vultures in the forest. Right, Pupo?
PUPO: Yep, Pepo. We control the confines of this forest line, including the incline of the pines and the nine signs of Sergeant Porcupine’s canines.
RWANDI: I think we’re done here.
PUPO: He’s tough to pluck, Pepo.
PEPO: I see that, Pupo.
RWANDI: So I’ll be on my way. See you later, or not.
PUPO: Operation Intimidation, Pepo.
PEPO: In action.
Rwandi tries to take a few steps. The vultures fly over to him.
RWANDI: And what’s going on now?
PEPO: Either you hand over the meat you’re carrying in that sack, or we’ll make sure the whole forest knows every step you take.
PUPO: When they see us flapping around in a circle in the sky, they’ll know where you are. And you’ll never make it to wherever you’re going.
RWANDI: How about if you just leave me alone?
PEPO: Do what we say. We’re hungry.
RWANDI: Me too.
PUPO: That’s not our concern.
RWANDI: Look, the meat I’ve got in here is for eating a little on the way and for giving the rest to the alenque when I get there. In case they need it…
PEPO: Well, we’re not humanitarians, and much less vegetarians.
PUPO: We’re carnivores, and pity is not our strong suit.
RWANDI: So I see. Ok, what choice is there? I’ll give it to you, but… Take this! (He hits them with the sack, but they wrestle it away. Rwandi manages to keep the rope, a little food, and some water.)
Down in the mess hall, time to eat.
Got to find something to put in my beak.
The bread was moldy and the meat was fat.
You know darn well I couldn’t eat that.
The vultures fight amongst themselves for a bite. Rwandi leaves, disheartened.
POET: Our boy is left with only some crackers and a little water and prepares to continue – because the body can withstand more than the mind imagines, when it feeds on dreams like Rwandi’s. So, he keeps going and going. Meanwhile, back at the plantation we find they are already searching for Rwandi.
Father, Grandma Minga, Belina with Tina, and Duke enter.
FATHER: That’s what I get for being nice. Do you have any idea how much money I lose each time a blessed slave escapes? Hundreds. Thousands! Practically a wagon full! Argh, they’re going to ruin me! It’s your fault this happened, you two! This useless old woman and that Fwandi deserve a hundred lashes each.
BELINA: And me too, since I got the meat from the kitchen, the rope to cross the river, the savings from my piggy bank, your old shirt… ah! And some crackers, and, well, yes, my green ribbon.
FATHER: That sounds like quite enough.
BELINA: No, I should have gone with him.
FATHER: Are you hearing this, Minga? Are you hearing this?
MINGA: Humph! I am the one to blame. I answered his questions, told him of my own attempts, prepared him for what’s ahead… I never imagined what plans he was hatching. If I’d have known… Ah, if I’d have known! The journey might have taken my last breath, but I’d have gone with him.
FATHER: You’re both lunatics, insane. The impudence to talk that way to your master! And the lack of respect for your father! One insolent child and one old woman who can hardly stand on her own two legs. Of course you two would help him.
DUKE: Arf, keep on wasting time. Achoo! That’s how Rwandi’ll escape.
FATHER: Looks like Duke has his trail.
DUKE: Arf, arf. If I did, I wouldn’t tell you. Achoo!
BELINA: So, Daddy, if we find him you’ll forgive him and let him stay on the plantation?
FATHER: No! My word is law.
BELINA: I know, Daddy. But laws can be changed. Just for one month, Daddy, just a month. He won’t try to escape again. I’ll make sure, you’ll see. Please.
FATHER: He’ll be here just long enough for his stay in the punishment room. And that’s it!
BELINA: Daddy, he’s just a kid! Don’t be mean.
FATHER: Does a kid do this kind of thing?
BELINA: I won’t eat ever again, Daddy.
FATHER: You’ll get skinny.
BELINA: Or drink water. And I’ll throw out my medicine and tear my dresses. I’ll never go to school again!
BELINA: And I won’t kiss you when I go to bed.
FATHER: Belina, Belina, Belina. I have to teach that boy a lesson, Belina! What kind of example would it be to the overseer if I go soft? No, don’t look at me like that. It’s enough already I’m looking for that fool behind the overseer’s back. And me being the master! Who’s ever seen such a thing? Huh?! And I’m doing it for you. My overseer would have the dogs rip him to shreds, but… (Belina starts to cry.) Don’t do that. Look… Ok, ok, ok! Aunt Leonor is right that I spoil you too much. Ok, he’ll stay here… one more month. But only one month. Ah, and he won’t leave the servants’ room in the back!
BELINA: But, Daddy! Poor Rwandi!
FATHER: I’m not giving another inch. He’ll get bread and water! No more playing around! And, well, we’ll see how he behaves. We’ll see. And then maybe… We need more young servants in the house and… I’m not promising anything. Nothing at all.
DUKE: Arf, arf, now I’ll find him. Achoo!
BELINA: Thank you, thank you! Did you hear, Grandma Minga? Aren’t you happy?
MINGA: Yes, I heard. But… should I be happy that Rwandi will be a slave again?
(sings or speaks)
Far from you, my life
Loses all its warmth.
Every evening falls
Without the break of dawn.
Close to you, my life
Loses all its color.
Every evening falls
Without the break of dawn.
POET: Midday arrives, and the Sun is sending out his strongest rays over the earth, withering roses and moistening foreheads with sweat. Weak and tired, Rwandi still runs and runs. The sun and heat push down on him, more and more, until, tired and foggy-headed, he sits down, feeling sad, to take a rest. Not a breeze is felt, and the last sip of water has run out.
Along with Rwandi and Ms. Jicotea, Ms. Piedra is on stage, though she is not noticed until she moves upon speaking later.
RWANDI: Ah, I’m never going to make it. Never! Poor Rwandi thought he was so strong, and he’s just like all the other kids. So weak that sometimes his legs feel like two oxen stuck in the mud. Oh, poor Rwandi and his dreams! Poor me.
MS. JICOTEA: (standing up next to Rwandi) But what is this? Have you ever seen such a thing? Such a strong, growing boy feeling sorry for himself like that?
RWANDI: Ah, sorry, Ms. Jicotea, I thought you were a rock.
MS. JICOTEA: What a silly mistake. Me, a rock! You almost drowned me with that blubbering.
RWANDI: I’m very sad, Ms. Jicotea.
MS. JICOTEA: Children must not stay too sad for too long, you know. They must jump, play, study, and sometimes play tricks. That, yes. But sad? That is a dreadful word for a child, dreadful. Grown-ups can be very sad, yes. Some are sad for what they have. Most are sad for what they don’t have. Others, sad just because. But sadness should not be for a child!
RWANDI: I’m tired and don’t see how I can make it.
MS. JICOTEA: And all this because of that little worry?
RWANDI: Does it seem so little?
MS. JICOTEA: Miniscule! Minute! It’s been sixty-four moons since they told me it was time for the great competition, the unconcluded race!
RWANDI: What is that?
MS. JICOTEA: A race we turtles celebrate every hundred years.
RWANDI: Why every hundred years?
MS. JICOTEA: Because sometimes there are turtles that are running the last race still, or the one before that, or the one before the one before that.
RWANDI: That’s crazy!
MS. JICOTEA: Crazy is stopping or falling behind in the race you have set for yourself.
RWANDI: And are there prizes?
MS. JICOTEA: Almost always. But what prize is greater than the chance to participate?
RWANDI: And do some make it to the end?
MS. JICOTEA: Some. By persisting and helping one another. Sometimes when three of us find ourselves together, we decide to call the race and declare ourselves the victors.
RWANDI: And the others?
MS. JICOTEA: They end up accepting it. What choice do they have! And they declare themselves victors too! Or they continue on, lost, because they don’t know how to set a goal and reach it.
RWANDI: How many races have you run?
MS. JICOTEA: What a question! In one, of course. You only have the opportunity in life to participate in one race. That’s why you have to do it with the most spirit and determination. Understand?
RWANDI: And does nothing stop you?
MS. JICOTEA: They block my way, they slow me down, but they don’t stop me. Onward, ever onward. If I let them stop me, I would become sad, like you. And I’ve already told you that can’t be. Of course, it’s good to take a rest once in a while.
MS. JICOTEA: Really. Like the one I took, or you, a moment ago. Take a rest! But now let’s get our spirits up and…
RWANDI: (interrupting) In no time at all…
(singing or speaking)
They met by chance one Sunday,
Ms. Egret and the crocodile.
“Where to in such a hurry,
My neighbor crocodile?”
He’s left his safe protection
Under the saffron tree
And, running in such a rush,
Looks less like a croc than a steed.
“I’m in a hurry, Ms. Egret.
I don’t have a second to waste.”
“Hold on,” she said, “and tell me:
How can I be of aid?”
The day is growing longer
With dance of shadow and light.
Then with flashes in clouds,
The rain announces the night.
And in case you doubted,
What proves it’s true is this pain
In my foot. You see, it alerts me
To earthquakes or hurricanes.
MS. PIEDRA: (moving) One moment, one moment. I want to go to the river too.
RWANDI: But… you, Ms. Piedra?
MS. PIEDRA: Of course, what did you think? I’m not going to stay stopped here forever.
RWANDI: But I can’t just toss you in my pocket. You’re a rock, and you’d weigh me down!
MS. PIEDRA: But you can easily give me a little kick there with your foot. Then I’ll go rolling until I make it to the river. It’s not far off.
RWANDI: It’s not far?
MS. JICOTEA: She’s hallucinating!
MS. PIEDRA: You don’t feel it?
MS. JICOTEA: Me neither, Ms. Piedra. Are you alright?
MS. PIEDRA: Ah, it seems that you two don’t know how to roll toward adventure. What are those faces for? I’m in my good senses. I do feel the river. Or do you believe in that saying, Lucky the rock who neither feels nor suffers? What ignorance with a capital I. I sense the waters of the stream when they come jumping through the trees. I hear them fill the birds’ nests with music, releasing the flowers’ perfume. If you only knew how I sprout little clusters of mossy green, and my edges dampen with happiness, and I get the urge to fly like a bird, to have pollen so the bees will taste me. Or for someone to throw me from the hilltops to see… all the colors that unravel under the sky, at last! Yes, really. No one knows the way better than the rocks. But, … well! Look, over here, the moss is fresher, and that’s a sign of water close by.
MS. JICOTEA: It’s true. I hadn’t noticed.
RWANDI: Then let’s hurry before it gets dark.
MS. JICOTEA: Go ahead with Ms. Piedra, child, go ahead. We all have our own pace. But hurry! We’ll meet again at the finish.
POET: With renewed spirits, our Rwandi goes kicking Ms. Piedra with his foot, and she rolls and rolls happily toward the river. Not far behind, Ms. Jicotea follows them. After walking a while, now almost to the river, in a dense part of the forest, an enormous ugly White Scorpion blocks Rwandi’s path. But, let’s see what happens to Rwandi. Come on, Rwandi!
SCORPION: (sharpening his stinger and singing or speaking)
There can never be anything wrong
With being who I am.
The heartless ones are the others
Who try to put me down.
I have every right in the world
To be just who I am.
The heartless ones are the others
Who try to put me down.
I will show my true colors
By being who I am.
The heartless ones are the others;
They’ll never put me down.
Congratulations, kid! Congratulations! I’ve traveled from the cornfield, where I grew up, in search of some unlucky victim. I’ve crossed paths with iguanas, centipedes, and bumblebees. And they all flee from my path as if from an impending storm. Imagine if you hadn’t happened to pass by. I might have poisoned my own tail with my stinger. Or I might have had nothing to eat but air. But now you’ve come along. So this is my chance!
RWANDI: Mr. Scorpion, have mercy. Don’t hurt me.
SCORPION: I can’t take pity. It isn’t in my nature. That’s just who I am.
RWANDI: I haven’t done you any harm.
SCORPION: And do sickness and malice need such excuses to attack? What ignorance, kid!
RWANDI: Let me get to the river. Tomorrow I’ll come back here again and…
SCORPION: (interrupting) No. I’ll lose my stinger and my breath as soon as I strike you, since I’m not so young anymore, but… what can I do? It’s who I am!
RWANDI: Nothing can stop you?
SCORPION: Don’t get your hopes up. The only thing that could stop me is willpower, but I don’t have any. That’s for human beings. You humans are different. Thanks to willpower, some of you have gotten out of the worst situations with just a few scars. But me, … I already told you. It’s who I am!
RWANDI: I won’t let one little sting stop me. Let’s go. You want to see my willpower? I’ll show you.
SCORPION: That’s how I like my victims, determined. You have no other way out. You won’t suffer much. You’ll see. It’s a short, deep pain. Then you sink into a fog, and… (Rwandi stomps on the scorpion, though it stings him all the same.)
POET: The scorpion falls defeated, but our Rwandi suddenly feels the earth spin and open under his feet. An immense, murky warmth rises through his body all the way to his forehead. His hands begin sweating, while his tongue gets drier and drier. And he can neither scream nor move. The name of a friend lingers on his lips. Remembering this name sustains him, prevents him from falling deeper. And then, finally, after a while, no one could say quite when, he feels more relaxed, as if back from a long walk, but changed somehow… a young man entering a new, strange place! A beautiful place where they announce his arrival with trumpets and drums.
Rwandi appears transformed into a young man.
LECHUZA: Here comes the great Rwandi!
CEIBA: He makes his triumphant entrance to the royal palenque.
BELINA: Rwandi, I’ve waited so, so long for you. Look how much Tina has grown.
TINA: How are you doing, Rwandi? How are you doing, Rwandi? How are you doing, Rwandi?
RWANDI: She’s big now, almost as tall as you.
BELINA: Did you bring her any presents?
RWANDI: Yes, this flower from the forest that smells sweet all night long.
TINA: Ah, how pretty. Ah, how pretty.
RWANDI: And for you, Belina, this smooth scarf the forest spun from your green ribbon I wore on my neck.
BELINA: Thank you. How beautiful!
Grandma Minga enters.
RWANDI: Grandma! Grandma Minga!
MINGA: My Rwandi, my good Rwandi. I knew you would make it!
RWANDI: Grandma, how is your back? Is it better?
MINGA: Completely better, my Rwandi. No whips can hurt me anymore.
RWANDI: Grandma Minga…, is the master here too?
BELINA: Here there are no masters, Rwandi.
RWANDI: There aren’t?
MINGA: Here we are all masters and kings! That is to say, free! Kings of ourselves and of those we love and who love us. That is the only worthy kingdom among human beings, the kingdom of love.
BELINA: And today we’ll celebrate your arrival by crowning you king of yourself. For accomplishing the great deed of achieving your goals.
RWANDI: I did only what I needed to do.
CEIBA: I have seen you overcome fear.
PUPO: And hunger too. Right, Pepo?
PEPO: Very true, Pupo.
SCORPION: And you even conquered sickness.
LECHUZA: And I didn’t stop you with my chattering.
RWANDI: Are all of them kings too?
MINGA: Not yet, but some day they will be, when they mend their ways and fulfill the pure and true designs that nature has for all beings to live in harmony.
Pupo and Pepo interrupt one another.
PEPO: …we learned.
PUPO: Pardon me. You first, Mr. Pepo.
PEPO: Excuse me. By no means; first you.
PUPO AND PEPO: The rules of courtesy and etiquette.
PUPO: You first.
PEPO: No! You.
MINGA: Boys, boys!
PUPO: Pardon me, Mr. Pepo.
PEPO: Excuse me, Mr. Pupo.
LECHUZA: I am attending, every morning and very early, an actual school where I learn properly from books: Ready, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, G, G … G? What letter’s next?
MINGA: Young lady!
LECHUZA: I’ll start over. Ready, A, B, C, D, E, F, G … and Y!
CEIBA: Well I give the best, warm shade to travelers. And by night I shelter in my branches a hundred mockingbirds, six pigeons, one dancing warbler, and two pairs of canaries that never let me rest. But no matter! At any time, if I want, I can… (gestures threateningly)
MINGA: (interrupting) Madam!
CEIBA: If I want, I can rock them gently to sleep all day.
SCORPION: I’ve now bitten my own tail twenty-one thousand, four hundred seventy-nine times, in order not to sting anyone else. But how delightful it would be to give one little sting, even if it were just to a delivery boy.
MINGA: Mister Scorpion!
SCORPION: It’s who I am!
MINGA: Well, then change! We must try to correct our mistakes and flaws when they harm others. Humph! (turning to all present) Do you all promise to do so?
ALL: We promise, Grandma Minga. We promise.
CEIBA: And now, before the dinner and the awards… the great dance!
LECHUZA: Alright, birds of a feather flock together. Take a partner’s hand, and let’s dance.
MINGA: Now receive our prize, Rwandi, young branch of an old family tree.
RWANDI: So, everything has its reward?
All the characters sing and dance.
ALL: Yes, the greatest prize is the chance to truly live!
POET: A great party is one where everyone dances, as in a then-distant future, as in a sure and shining present. But between the haze and the happiness, a sweet, quiet voice is heard little by little. And Rwandi wakes up to see himself again as he is in our story: a slave boy, alone and lost in the forest. Yet he finds new strength in that sweet voice, coming not from his dream but from the waking world. He gets up and runs, at first not very fast, and then… quick as ever! There he goes in search of the melodious voice. And now, at last, he finds himself on the bank of a tranquil, babbling river.
The Sun is on stage with Rwandi and the Girl of the River.
GIRL OF THE RIVER: (singing or speaking)
My hair is made of silver
And my hands of crystal glass.
My dress is clearest blue
Sewn with coral from oceans past.
See yourself in my tender eyes,
And you will not be lost.
Don’t disturb my rushing waters,
For in my arms you’ll cross.
RWANDI: Is that you singing with such a sweet voice?
GIRL: Yes, it’s me, Rwandi, the Girl of the River.
RWANDI: You know me? You knew I was coming here?
GIRL: A bright star confirmed it at midday: “He is overcoming all obstacles and will be here soon,” it told me. And even the breeze has been whispering it through the chattering leaves. We all hoped for you to succeed.
RWANDI: Will you let me cross, Girl of the River?
GIRL: Of course. But be cautious of my hair. It is long and twisting, and you could become tangled and fall down to the bottom where the fish travel among the deep, dark rocks.
RWANDI: I will be careful.
GIRL: Hurry, then. Cross before the sun goes down.
RWANDI: If you let me, I’ll cross right away.
GIRL: One moment. What is it you value most among your possessions?
RWANDI: I’ve lost everything along the way.
GIRL: And have you gained nothing in return?
GIRL: You can lose it in a second.
RWANDI: But you can also make it count.
GIRL: You are worthy to cross. But you must give me something in return. It is custom. What is it you are wearing around your neck?
RWANDI: It’s… a ribbon. A memento.
GIRL: Do you want something more valuable than a memento? Give that to me.
RWANDI: I would feel bare without it.
GIRL: Find another one, by living.
RWANDI: Ok, have it. That’s too bad! (prepares to throw the ribbon into the river)
GIRL: Do not throw it. Leave it on that rock. Although, if I were you, I would not do so.
RWANDI: I don’t understand.
GIRL: Everything is understood in its own time.
RWANDI: You’re talking like Grandma Minga.
GIRL: She must be very wise to talk like the waters.
RWANDI: And like the animals and the clouds. She knows so much more than she explains.
GIRL: She is wise, then. (Rwandi makes it look like he is leaving the ribbon, but he hides it in his pocket.) And now, Rwandi… (The Sun begins to hide itself.)
RWANDI: What’s happening?
GIRL: Ah, the Sun is setting. It’s late, Rwandi!
RWANDI: Mr. Sun, Mr. Sun, don’t hide away yet.
SUN: I’m very tired, Rwandi. Very tired. Since dawn I’ve had my nose to the grindstone lighting the world. Who do you think has brightened the humble homes and the palaces? Because of me, stalks of grain have sprung up. I have livened the house of the sick, and I’ve helped time pass for the prisoner and for the guard. And who dried the puddles and the clothes on the clotheslines? Who? Well, it is true I’ve dallied in the stained-glass windows of churches, but they make my light dance and play! However, I’ve been kind to the women who stroll with parasols. And I’ve known to hide myself for a while, behind a cloud, to give rest to those who work in the fields. If I’ve been tough on you, pardon me, but as you see, I’ve been toiling away, and now… (yawns) I have to go!
RWANDI: Just a little longer, Mr. Sun! Stay a little longer!
SUN: Impossible, Rwandi. Come back tomorrow. I promise to come out, even if it’s raining.
RWANDI: Just a few minutes, Mr. Sun, until I get to the middle of the river.
SUN: I can’t. I can’t, Rwandi. (fading away) I’ll come back tomorrow. I’ll come back. I’ll come back… (disappears)
RWANDI: What do I do now?
GIRL: Wait, Rwandi. Wait for the Moon to come out.
RWANDI: I need to get to the palenque tonight.
GIRL: Is what you are seeking so important?
RWANDI: It is.
GIRL: And if you don’t manage to reach it?
RWANDI: If I don’t reach it? Well, others that come after will know that someone made it this far. And will want to go further!
GIRL: Now it is I who do not understand.
Duke’s barking can be heard, coming closer as the scene progresses.
GIRL: Those who search for you are approaching.
RWANDI: I hear the bark of my good friend Duke DeSleuth.
GIRL: What is he saying?
RWANDI: How strange! He says, “Wait for me. Don’t cross.” Is he crazy?
GIRL: No, listen carefully. There is joy in his call.
RWANDI: But I hear fear too. Fear that they find me. I should cross now! (He ties his rope to a rock.)
GIRL: Wait just until the Moon comes. It’s nearly out.
RWANDI: No, I can’t wait any longer. They’re getting closer and closer. I can’t!
GIRL: Don’t do it, Rwandi. It’s very late already. Look, the ocean’s tide is starting to cover the plants that grow on my banks. It’s twisting its arms with mine and dirtying my hair with its salt. It’s now rising up the rocks, covering the moss like a great dark sheet. Don’t you hear it?
RWANDI: I can’t wait, Girl of the River. They’re very close. I have to go.
GIRL: Oh, Rwandi, if only you had patience! I can’t help you anymore.
RWANDI: I can do it. I can do it. My arms and legs have climbed the highest trees. My chest has stayed strong through joy and pain… I know my body can carry me across! (Holding tight to the rope, Rwandi jumps into the river and crosses slowly while he sings or speaks.)
The falling sky will soon
Be swallowed by the night.
And I have no one who
Can take me to the other side.
Another day of work
In the fields has left me tired.
And I have no one who
Can walk along my side.
The table now is served
For a single guest to dine.
And I have no one who
Can be here by my side.
GIRL: Careful, Rwandi. Careful, careful with my hair. Be careful!
POET: Rwandi’s lost his footing. He’s under the water. But look!
MS. PIEDRA: (appears) Stand firm on me, Rwandi. That’s it, yes. Here I am to help you. And look there; there’s another rock. Move your foot to her; she’s my friend. Don’t fear.
RWANDI: Grandma Minga, I’m crossing! I’m crossing!
POET: Yes, he goes further and further out. He is getting close to the other side now. But what’s happening? The rope is failing! Will our Rwandi not make it across? He needs help. The rope has come loose from the rock. And Rwandi… Rwandi is sinking into the water; his head bobs up for a moment, spinning and spinning, and suddenly… It’s incredible! Look!
MS. JICOTEA: (carrying Rwandi, who is riding on her, straddling her shell) Worry not, Rwandi, worry not. Hold tight to my shell. You won’t tip me over. I row with my feet. There we go! We’re almost there. We’re almost there!
The moon rises.
GIRL: Oh, Moon, beautiful Moon! Shed your light always on young Rwandi!
RWANDI: (from the other side) I’ve crossed! I’ve crossed! I’ve crossed! Grandma Minga, Belina, Forest, River, look at me. I’ve crossed! I’ve crossed! I’ve crossed!
POET: And upon bidding farewell to all his friends, with leaps and laughter, our Rwandi goes into the deep forest, out of sight. Good luck, young man, good luck. May your path be friendly and generous. It’s not long before the others arrive at the river. All is peaceful now. An immense, cream-white moon shimmers over the waters, which softly whisper their joy.
DUKE: He didn’t understand my bark. How could he think I’d trick him?
BELINA: Grandma Minga, has he made it?
FATHER: To where, Belina? Where?
MINGA: Yes, he has to have made it.
A drumbeat begins to be heard.
BELINA: What is that?
MINGA: You hear it? The drums of the palenque.
BELINA: What are they saying, Grandma Minga? What are they saying?
MINGA: They are announcing that Rwandi has arrived.
BELINA: Then… he made it there!
MINGA: Yes, my beautiful Rwandi has made it.
BELINA: And will he come back, Grandma Minga? Will he come back?
FATHER: Let’s go, Belina. Let’s go home.
MINGA: Will he return? Of course he’ll return! You know something? He’ll return from the palenque with all the others who once were slaves. And they will join hundreds more, like all of us. Yes, indeed! And they will fight together for there to never be slaves or sad children in this land ever again.
POET: And one day, when those far away drums dance here among us, and their music strikes us not as mysterious and distant, but clear and bright like your eyes, he will return. It will be the great celebration! Then, a child like you will see him. They will discover him in a young boy’s actions, in an old man’s voice, in a teenager’s firm gaze. And all will know that his trip was not in vain. And then they’ll say, “Rwandi has returned, and among us… he lives free!”