The Song of Coquí
translated and retold by Marisa Montes
Copyright © 2001 by Marisa Montes. All rights reserved.
Many, many years ago, when the earth was still covered with trees and green and flowering plants, and the animals lived together in peace, the islands of the Caribbean were ruled by la cotorra, the parrot, La Iguaca. Queen Iguaca was a wise and caring ruler, but she was saddened by what she saw in her native island of Puerto Rico.
The animals of Puerto Rico had grown fat and lazy.
Anole the lizard had grown so large, he could no longer climb trees. He could only waddle under the ferns and lie on his back in the shade of a palm.
Boa the snake was as thick as a tree trunk and twice as long. She spent her days coiled around a branch, sleeping or nibbling on sweet, tender leaves.
Sapo Concho, the giant toad, was a big as a bull. And Toro the bull was larger still.
But the saddest of all were the tree frogs. Their once-slender bellies had gotten rounder and rounder, till their tiny toes barely touched the ground. Even El Duende, the tiniest of the tree frogs, could no longer hop or climb--he could only roll . . . plop, roll . . . plop, roll . . . plop beneath the ferns.
The island no longer resounded with the song of the birds or the croak of the frogs or whispered with slithering snakes.
No one had the energy to run and play.
No one wished to sing and dance.
And certainly, no one wanted to work.
The only thing the animals would do was eat and sleep.
Queen Iguaca worried over the fate of her beloved island. She consulted with the Day and the Night, the Moon and the Stars, the Sun and the Clouds. She spoke to the Sea and questioned the Earth. She flew from island to island in search of an answer.
At each island, La Iguaca watched the foxes run and the rabbits play.
She listened to the nightingales sing and marveled as the lizards danced.
And she saw the ants and other insects hard at work.
After each flight, the Queen returned home and thought and thought and thought. How could she bring Life back to her island?
Then one day, when the Sun was in good cheer and not a Cloud marred the Sky, El Viento spoke to La Iguaca: "Your Majesty, I have the answer for which Her Majesty has searched so far and suffered so long."
"Speak, wise Wind," said the Queen. "What is the answer?"
"Your Majesty must hold a race for all the animals to enter. And to win this race, they each must work hard and exercise to get in shape."
Queen Iguaca stared at the Wind as if it had suggested that the Queen fly upside-down. "But Viento, you cannot be serious! Have you seen Duende and the other tree frogs lately? Or Anole or Boa or Sapo Concho? They can barely move. What makes you think they or any of the other animals would care to enter a race?"
"Because," El Viento replied, "Your Majesty will offer them a premio, a prize they cannot resist."
The Queen threw back her head and laughed. "What type of premio can entice Anole from under his palm, uncoil Boa from her branch, or budge Sapo Concho from his mud hole? What can possibly tempt the tree frogs away from the ferns?"
The Wind whirled and swirled and whistled around the Queen. Then it died down and whispered in her ear.
La Iguaca fanned her stubby tail. Her short head feathers fluffed up, and her eyes glowed red with excitement. She strutted back and forth, toe over toe, as she thought over El Viento's words.
"Sí," she said with a flap of her wings. "Sí, it might work. We shall do it!"
And so Cotorra La Iguaca, Queen of the Animals, announced to everyone on the island that a race would be held in one month and that the winner would receive a very special prize. But the nature of the prize would remain a secret until the race was won.
"A secret prize!" cried the animals. "A wonderful, special, secret prize!"
Excitement spread through the island. Each animal tried to guess what the prize might be. Anole guessed that the winner would receive daily tummy rubs. Boa thought long, tender vines of seaweed from the bottom of the Sea would be the perfect prize. She had never tasted seaweed. Sapo Concho wanted a bigger mud hole, and he was sure that was the secret premio.
At the foot of a giant fern, deep in the rain forest of El Yunque, gathered all the tiny tree frogs of the island. Because they were mute, they signaled and drew pictures to tell each other what they thought the prize would be. Each tree frog knew what the perfect premio should be: a Voice. A Voice for all the tree frogs. And if they were to win such a special prize, they would sing and sing and sing, never again to be silent!
El Viento was right. For the next month, Life returned to Puerto Rico. Anole remembered how to do push-ups and head-bobs and how to flick his tail and stick out his tongue. And especially, how to inflate his dewlap, which he practiced daily with remarkable skill.
Boa slithered from branch to branch and tree to tree, and she glided through the grassy underbrush. Each day, she got slimmer and quicker.
Sapo Concho's loud croak could be heard from one end of the island to the other, as he ker-plop, ker-plop, ker-plopped around his mud hole.
Everyone trained for the big race. Especially the tree frogs. Because they were so tiny, they knew they had to practice extra hard to beat the larger animals. It was their one chance to win a Voice, and they very much wanted a Voice.
But a few days before the race, winning began to look impossible for the tiny tree frogs. Anole was fit and trim and agile. He scampered through the forest with lightning speed. Large as Boa still was, she slithered faster than the tree frogs could hope to hop. Each of Sapo Concho's jumps carried him many yards. Yes, things looked bleak for the tree frogs.
On the eve of the race, Duende had an idea. When he shared his idea with the others, all the tree frogs agreed that Duende's plan was their only hope. They spent the rest of the evening practicing what they would do.
The next morning, the tree frogs took their places. They had agreed that El Palmeado would start the race because he was the biggest and had webbed toes. He was sure to make the best time. The others would station themselves behind trees along the race trail. Only if Palmeado began to fall behind would the frog stationed closest to him dart in to take his place.
Everyone agreed that Duende should be stationed closest to the finish line. It would be fitting that he have the honor of crossing the finish line first and being declared the winner. It was, after all, his idea.
The race was about to begin! Each animal lined up at the start line. The Air sizzled. The Sun beamed. The Sky grew intensely blue.
Queen Iguaca presided over the race from the top of a tall palm. "On your mark!" she yelled. "Get set! GO!"
The Earth thundered with the stampede of animals. A cloud of dust was all La Iguaca could see. Inside the dust cloud, Anole was in the lead, but Palmeado was close at his heels. Next came Boa and Sapo Concho, Toro, and the others.
Soon Palmeado was nose to nose with Anole, then he was in the lead. Palmeado was winning! Perhaps the others wouldn't have to take his place after all. And the tree frogs would win the race fair and square.
But then, "Get out of my way, you pesky little toad!" Anole flicked his long tail over his head and whipped Palmeado against a tree. The tree frogs were out of the race!
But not for long. Another tiny frog had been hiding behind the tree where Palmeado lay injured. He jumped into the race and was soon at Anole's side. Anole swatted him away, onto Boa's path. Without slowing her stride, Boa wrapped the tree frog in her tail and threw him into the nearby brush. Far ahead of the others, another tree frog took his place.
As one frog fell behind or got pushed out of the race, another would take his place. Finally, it was Duende's turn.
When he saw the cloud of dust approaching the finish line, Duende darted onto the trail and headed toward his prize. Only a few short feet from the line, he heard the snap of Anole's whip-like tail. Duende took one mighty leap and flew through the air, barely missing the sting of Anole's tail and finishing first.
Queen Iguaca stuck out her chest and fanned her tail. Her eyes burned bright red. "Congratulations, little Duende! You are the winner!"
Huffing and puffing, Anole and Boa approached the Queen. "No, he is not," cried Anole. "The tree frogs cheated! I am the winner!"
"No," said Boa, "Anole cheated, too. I am the winner!" And Boa went on to explain what she had seen during the race. After each of the animals told their stories, it turned out that they had all cheated. Each had pushed and shoved one another throughout the race.
"Well," said the Queen, "We are saddened to hear that each of you has cheated to win the special prize. Perhaps no one should win, but--"
La Iguaca felt a breeze tickle her shoulder. El Viento whispered in her ear. Queen Iguaca listened, her red eyes flickering.
The wise Queen nodded. "You shall have your prize, little Duende. The tree frogs began with the right idea. You worked hard and planned together to achieve something you wanted dearly. For this you shall each be rewarded with the thing you want the most: A Voice."
The tree frogs hopped and danced and hugged each other.
"Wait!" commanded the Queen. The tree frogs froze. "Your victory was not an honest one, and for this you must also be punished. You will have a Voice, but only at night, and if you ever try to leave this island you shall die."
And so it came to pass that in Puerto Rico, the tree frog sings only at night: "Co-kee! Co-kee!" he sings. The sound of his song is what gives him his name, the coqui. And if you are lucky enough to find a coqui, do not try to take him from his native island of Puerto Rico, because the coqui will surely die.
Most of the animals in this story are endangered. Sapo Concho, the giant Puerto Rican toad, is considered threatened, as are the Puerto Rican Giant Anole and the Pigmy Anole. Two species of Puerto Rico's boas and the Giant Snake Lizard are at risk of extinction.
The Puerto Rican parrot, la Cotorra Puertoriqueña, is nearly extinct. In 1971, only 16 parrots could be found. By 1989, with the help of conservationists, the population of Puerto Rican parrots had risen to about 99 (52 of them lived in an aviary in El Yunque, the Caribbean National Forest and the remaining 47 lived in the wild). Then Hurricane Hugo reduced the population that lived in the wild to only 25. For this reason, it is illegal to own or sell a Puerto Rican parrot or anything belonging to it, like its eggs or nests, or even its feathers!
"La Iguaca" was the name the Taino Indians gave their native parrot. At about 11 inches long, the Puerto Rican parrot is one of the smallest species of Amazon parrots. Iguaca is totally green except for some blue in its wings, which is best seen when in flight. It has a red band over its nose and a ring of white skin around its eyes.
Sadly, even three of the 16 species of the coquis in Puerto Rico are highly endangered. The Web-footed Coqui, el Coquí Palmeado, and the Mottled Coqui, el Coquí Eneida, are classified as threatened in Puerto Rico. El Coquí Dorado is the most endangered of the three.
If you want to learn more about the coqui and hear it sing, click here
Copyright © 2011 by Marisa Montes. All rights reserved.