“Paco and the Arco Iris” by Sarah Yasin

Unprecedented and freakish.

The hunger churning in Paco’s belly was unprecedented. Freakish were the munchies which struck him: it was not normal for a crocodile to feel such hunger, yet he had never been so famished in all his days. He lived in a verdant tangle of the Costa Rican jungle, but he wanted junk-food, not his usual outdoor fare. He yearned for a vending machine to dispense neon colored corn chips.

If only a human were around, he could ask for a ride into the village to get a crunchy snack. But it was a time of change in Paco’s world because fewer and fewer humans spoke with him using the psychic powers they possessed.

Animals, birds, even the blades of grass, all had a glow, and this was easy for the crocodile to see because he didn’t struggle with seeing things the way humans did. Certain humans’ preternatural light outshone the others, and these people were either sorcerers, or would become sorcerers.

He wished when people encountered him they would not run in fear or try to destroy him with arrows. If they would talk to him, they would learn everything he knew about himself and thus they would know there was nothing to fear, for all Paco ever wanted was to live peaceably in the jungle and to someday fly through a rainbow.

But today he needed to eat, and so he looked for any kind of food to assuage the longing inside him. He ambled along a riverbed and encountered a coquí – a tiny delectable frog – and scooped it into his mouth with his outstretched chin. He lolled the creature over his tongue, savoring the piquant flavor concentrated on its back. He crunched on its tiny bones and sighed. The minuscule frog did little to quiet the munchies, and he moved on to find something bigger than the apertivo.

Before he got very far, a strange feeling came over him – his body felt as though it were floating even though his belly was planted on the ground. His vision became extraordinarily clear and he found he could see much farther than ever before. His hearing, too, sharpened, and he noticed sounds of the jungle he never knew existed: the flapping of insect wings, and the hum of faraway streams.

A strange mewling sound issued from the tree branches above him, and he looked up to see a little girl swaying on a vine, whimpering.

The perfect size for a meal, Paco considered eating the girl, but a child in distress was never a pleasant thing to eat. The girl moaned and Paco dismissed his hunger. He had to help her. He lifted his tail to thump the ground to get her attention: he opened his mouth, and for the first time in his reptilian life, words formed and he spoke aloud.

“Little girl, what’s wrong?”

The little girl looked down and studied him for a moment, then resumed sighing in her distress.
Paco couldn’t bear it. “Are you lost, little girl?”

The girl swerved her neck and looked all around her. “Lost! Lost! I lost my dolly!” And she broke into loud sobbing. Tears the size of coquís fell to the ground and splashed up around Paco.

“Don’t cry! I can help you find the dolly for I have excellent eyesight.”

His promise did not quell the tears that now were forming into living coquís as they bounced off the ground. The little frogs jumped and made their way to Paco, and remembering his hunger, he let them hurl themselves into his mouth. They melted on his tongue and he swallowed. His vision became more intense than ever before, and the jungle’s colors swelled with bright clarity.

He looked up at the trees and could see through the leaves, past the landscape and through the mountains. He blinked and he saw farther – into a little village in a valley, and through the walls of the homes. Inside one of the homes was a doll’s cradle, and he looked through the wooden slats and saw a doll.
“I have found the dolly, little girl! Your dolly is at home in a cradle.”

The girl’s sobs faded and she rubbed her eyes.

Paco saw confusion and then joy spring from the girl’s face. He wagged his tail and said, “Climb down and be on your way. Everything is going to be all right.”

He braced himself to restrain his urge to gobble her up when a swishing sound emanated behind him. Paco turned around to see an old native sorcerer approaching him. The old man glowed with a fierce coil of lightning filaments around his head, and a long white beard covered the front of his cloak. Paco knew that sorcerers could speak to him when they initiated the conversation. But today was different, now that he could speak with words.

Paco tilted his head and said, “You must go with that little girl and ensure her safe conduct home through the jungle.”

The sorcerer laughed. “My friend, there is no little girl in sight.”

Paco twisted his head behind him and the girl was no longer in the tree. He searched through the trees and couldn’t see any sign of her, not even footprints.

The sorcerer jumped and slapped his knees. “You have done a good deed, and I have come to reward you with a song.” The old man sloped his head back and a pink cloud enveloped him.

Even with his enhanced eyesight, Paco could not see through the mist. Then through the cloud came the voices of many men, a polyphony of chanting that went: —

Jungle toji sprinkles through
a sea of leaves, the laká roof,
and bids the arco iris shine,
a vapor stairway for to climb.

Little pek-pen leap and dance,
they caper in a fufu prance,
but lick thou not the pek-pen’s back:
they turn the arco iris slack!

If thou dost fly through colors bold
beware the tenuous stairway’s hold,
for coquí banquets hath no sway
to last the night at end of day.

The only antidote, my son,
is found in petals bravely won
from flowers of ti-fakara:
otíni thou must chupara.

Jungle toji sprinkles through
a sea of leaves, the laká roof,
and bids the arco iris shine,
a vapor stairway for to climb.

The pink cloud lifted and Paco strained to see who had appeared to sing the song with the sorcerer, but the old man was alone.

“How did you do that!” Paco’s eyes swirled in their sockets, dizzy from looking.

“A sorcerer can beckon assistance from any number of helpers. The message in the song is very important, and you must remember its meaning.”

“But I haven’t any idea as to the meaning! It was full of nonsense words.”

“Nonsense? It was not nonsense. What is the One Big Thing you have always wanted?”

“To fly through a rainbow.”

“And this day you have the powers to do so. I have just told you how to do it. Now you must go. Find the rainbow before it’s too late.”

“But I didn’t understand the song!” Paco watched with pleading eyes as the sorcerer walked away, the ground heaving puffs of vapor with his footsteps.

Paco would have wept, but being a crocodile he had no tear ducts and was unable to. He considered his dilemma and decided he should look for the rainbow even though he had no knowledge of the direction to go. He looked around with his enhanced vision and saw a new river bending its path toward him. It moved its course over the paddock and Paco took it as a sign to go and meet it. Perhaps he could ask the river for some help.

Paco took three slow steps toward the river and arrived. He opened his mouth to speak, but as soon as he did a woman on a raft drifted in front of him.

Dressed in an old-timey suit of tweed, the woman had on a black floppy bow tie and thick-framed spectacles that eclipsed her face.

She plunged an oar onto the grass and said, “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” She adjusted her spectacles and continued, “Marcus Aurelius. The Meditations.”

Paco was perplexed. “Are you Marcus Aurelius?”

“No, fool! Do I look like a Roman statesman to you?”

Paco had never seen a Roman statesman and didn’t know how to respond without seeming rude.

The woman jumped off the raft and said, “I am Professor Calderon. I’ve lost my syllabus and I need to find it before classes start at dusk.”

She would have been a delight to eat were it not for the strong odor of coffee emanating from her pores. He noticed a leather valise on the raft and could see through the files inside. In between a menu for a Thai takeout counter and an evaluation form was a paper entitled SYLLABUS. Paco decided to wait to tell her where it was because she seemed like an intelligent lady and she might be able to help him understand the meaning of the sorcerer’s song.

He wagged his tail and said, “Are you familiar with much poetry?”

“Well I am a philologist so I do know a little.”

“Have you ever heard a poem about ‘jungle toji?’”

“Yes, hasn’t everyone! My goodness, did you just hear it for the first time today?”

“Not only that, I just began speaking today.”

The professor harrumphed. “I suppose you deserve a concession for that.”

“Can you explain the meaning to me?”

The professor sat on a fallen tree branch and withdrew a stainless steel travel mug from her pocket. “Yes, of course I can. I’m a professor. Coffee?” She withdrew two china tea cups from the pocket and poured herself a cup and held the other empty cup to Paco.

Paco had forgotten how hungry he was but somehow all the teardrop coquís kicked in, and he no longer felt the need to consume anything. “I’m good. But the meaning?”

“The meaning. Yes. The song involves three languages you see: English, Spanish, and the native tongue of the Maleku. The first verse is an exhortation to climb a rainbow like a set of stairs: —

Jungle toji sprinkles through
a sea of leaves, the laká roof,
and bids the arco iris shine,
a vapor stairway for to climb.

“Toji is a Maleku word that means sun. Laká means earth in Maleku. An acro iris is a rainbow in Spanish. So in essence, this verse says the sun causes a rainbow to appear as a stairway you can climb. Now, the next verse: —

Little pek-pen leap and dance,
they caper in a fufu prance,
but do not lick the pek-pen’s back:
they turn the arco iris slack!

“Still in Maleku, pek-pen are frogs and fufu are butterflies – those pretty blue ones with the black rims. The pek-pen mentioned here are specifically of the genus Eleutherodactylus, commonly known as the coquí, and indigenous to Puerto Rico. You don’t need to worry about encountering them here in Costa Rica unless by some act of wizardry they were to appear by magic.”

Paco reeled. “But that’s exactly what happened.”

She poured out another cup of coffee and slurped it all in a single gulp. “Good heavens! Have the illusions begun? Never mind, the rest of the poem will fix you: —

If thou dost fly through colors bold
beware the tenuous stairway’s hold,
for coquí banquets hath no sway
to last the night at end of day.

“The psychedelic powers lapse by nightfall, which is the precise time that my classes begin – the classes for which I am ill-prepared without my syllabus.”

Paco felt a twinge of guilt at not assuaging the professor’s nerves, but had to know the rest of the song’s meaning. “I’m confident I can help you find the syllabus, but what comes next in the song?”

The professor drank a long draught directly from the travel mug and continued. “The next verse goes: —

The only antidote, my son,
is found in petals bravely won
from flowers of ti-fakara:
otíni thou must chupara.

“The word ti-fakara is Maleku for waterfall. Otíni means five. Chupara is Spanish for lick. So, the only way to combat the destructive powers of the coquí is to lick five petals from the flowers that grow beneath a waterfall. One can infer that five is a precise number – any more or less would not be efficacious. Do you understand now?”

Paco was elated. “Yes! Do you know where I might find a waterfall?”

“Don’t you live here? There are waterfalls all around you. Look there.” She pointed to the left and Paco turned to see cascading waters tumbling over a set of rocks. The professor pointed to the right. “And there.” Paco looked to the right and saw another, larger waterfall only a few feet away from them.

The professor stood and said, “And right behind me.” Paco was astounded to see an even larger waterfall on the other side of the river which he hadn’t noticed when the professor dismounted the raft.

Paco strode toward the waterfall to the right and the professor raised her voice. “Now wait just a minute there, Bub. You said you would help me look for my lost . . . my lost . . . .” The professor bit her finger. “I know I lost something, and it’s very important that I find it. But I can’t remember what it was.”

A cluster of purple flowers glistened through the waters, and Paco hastened toward them. He said over his shoulder,

“Your syllabus is what you’re looking for, and it’s in the valet between the menu for The Jade Butterfly and the evaluation forms.”

He heard the professor rifle through her bag and the distant cry of “Eureka!” He looked back as the river receded far away, the professor rowing at a fast pace and becoming smaller and smaller until she was a mere pinpoint on the horizon.

Paco approached the flowers and carefully counted five that were so close together that he could chomp them in one bite. In his excitement, he forgot the admonition to consume five petals, not five whole flowers. He opened his mouth and the flowers recoiled from him.

All at once the flowers flapped their petals and said, “Who do you think you are! You can’t just eat us without asking!”

Paco flinched and blinked. He’d never encountered such rude flowers before in his life; usually they were very polite and made genial conversation.

“I beg your pardon, ladies, I didn’t mean to offend you. I didn’t think you would mind since I need to use your powers as an antidote.”

“Well it sure does offend us; you think you can just saunter up to us without so much as a how-dee-doo? Well fiddle-dee-dee. Why don’t you start over? Begin with, ‘Hello ladies, lovely day isn’t it?’”

Paco sighed. These were the most highfalutin flowers he ever met.

“Come on, chicas, it’s for a good cause.”

“Not until you ask us like a gentleman.”

Paco shifted his feet. “My dear pretty flowers, please honor me with the gracious bequeathing of your petals to aid me in my quest to fly through a rainbow.”

The flowers stretched and laughed in chorus. Tittering, they swerved and swirled on their stems. “That’s what you want to do! Fly through a rainbow? Don’t you know it’s impossible to fly through a rainbow?”

Paco tilted his head and grinned. “Pretty flowers, you sound like a bunch of humans with your naysaying. Nothing is impossible in the jungle. In fact, it’s not even impossible for me to eat you without your kind permission.” And without delay he gobbled them up before they could respond.

Furnished with the petals, Paco turned to ascend the rainbow, but there was no rainbow in sight. He guessed the time had not arrived for the rainbow to make an appearance, so he rolled onto his back and waited.

He closed his eyes for a brief moment, and when he opened them phosphorescent dots of green light floated around him. The lights swerved and circled in a fluid dance, and Paco stared at them, mesmerized.

Suddenly one of the lights landed on the end of his snout, and he crossed his eyes to focus on it. The light dimmed and he saw a minuscule face with a pomaded mustachio. It was a firefly, wearing a tie-dyed Grateful Dead tee shirt. It had a tiny cigar at the end of one of its legs. The insect drew the cigar to its mouth and pulled on it, causing the cherry to emit a bright orange glow.

Paco wondered if the firefly knew when the rainbow would come.

As if reading his thoughts, the firefly said, “When the student is ready, the master appears. Blow the clocks off a dandelion, and you will see the rainbow.”

Paco looked around and saw a patch of dandelions at his feet. He bent his face to blow on one that had gone to seed, its head a gossamer orb of white. With his acute vision he noticed the tips of the florets were made up of tiny silver clock faces, all appointed with Roman numerals.

The firefly said, “Before you blow, can you tell me the time? I have a class at dusk and I don’t want to be late.”
Dusk. Time was ticking. Paco peered at the miniature faces and said, “Quarter to six. You better go, friend, or you’ll be late.”

“I don’t need to go anywhere. The professor will come to us.”

“Then why did you say you didn’t want to be late?”

“I need to clean out my brain. Can’t start class with a messy brain, my friend. Go on, now. Blow. Blow like the wind.”

Paco bent and blew the little clock faces and they swooshed into the sky from whence a rainbow unfurled in steps down to the jungle floor. Paco’s legs were too short to ascend the stairway and he didn’t know what to do.

Before long he heard a familiar voice behind him say, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Paco turned to see Professor Calderon adjusting the giant spectacles on her face.

She squinted and said, “Marcus Aurelius. Meditations.”

Paco looked back at the rainbow, resplendent in its colors and length. He plumbed the depths of his mind and concentrated on his grand wish to fly through the rainbow. He found at the bottom of his mind a small slip of paper that said, “Nothing is impossible in the jungle.”

Paco grinned and said the words out loud: “Nothing is impossible in the jungle!” He tapped into the genetically inherited memory of his reptilian ancestors and roared like a dinosaur: all at once he levitated. He roared again and rose higher into the air. He roared a final time and flew fast into the sky, past the trees and through the rotating colors of the rainbow.

Everything was illumined with new degrees of purples and magentas, then reds and oranges. He flew past yellows and greens and then as he approached the glorious shades of blues, something terrible happened. The colors grew dark. He looked down and saw the rainbow had transformed into a menacing black skein. In front of him the sky was dark, and the rainbow no longer offered colors. Instead it was a silken pall of blackness. At the end of the rainbow was a giant gaping mouth with glistening black teeth. Paco tried to slow down but his momentum was too strong.

He flew directly into the hideous maw and was eaten by the slippery teeth that clasped shut around him with a monstrous clang.

He would never lick another coquí, and he would never again disobey the warning of a sorcerer’s song.
Paco was no more.

A new fairytale, “Paco and the Arco Iris” evokes the style of Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum, set within a traditional framework of Central American brujeria. According to Latin American folklore, sorcerers have the ability to speak with animals, a phenomenon modern scholars call nonlocal communication. For some sorcerers, their vision quests are enhanced by the use of psychedelic substances found in nature. With their ability to see what remains invisible to common people, sorcerers can understand life’s mysteries while taking part in them. These mysteries are clear to plants and animals: it’s the humans who have trouble seeing. “Paco and the Arco Iris” is a new fairytale under the influence of old enchantment.

Originally from the idyllic coast of Maine, Sarah Yasin presently lives inland where she studies world literature in translation using the public library. She teaches Latin at a private high school and moonlights at the checkout counter of a convenience store.

Illustration by Akira Lee. Akira is a Universiti Malaya student by day, geek and manga enthusiast by night. Drawing and writing by the moonlight. Accepting commissions at motesandshadows AT gmail.com

Truancy 2, March 2016