(For Lynn Mooney and Daniel and Dahlia Acosta)
Deep in the Amazon River basin, high in the trees’ thick canopy, Dahlia lived with her mom, dad, brothers, and sisters. There were about twenty other common marmosets in their community, and all of the neighbors spent many happy days together working, socializing, and raising their families. Dahlia was the youngest and the smallest in her family, and very often, her brothers and sisters ran out to play with the neighborhood kids, leaving her behind. This made her sad, but after her siblings left, Dahlia would go outside and talk to birds and lizards. Sometimes, she would swing through the branches around the neighborhood or pester her mother.
One afternoon, while her dad was out gathering food, her mom was at the neighbors’, and her brothers and sisters left her alone in the house, Dahlia was hungry. She waited for a while, hoping her mom would return, but her little stomach growled and howled until she could take it no more. Slipping into the kitchen, she hopped up on the counter and found her mother’s new chocolate cooling. Dahlia paused. She knew her mom would be angry if she ate it. But her stomach rumbled deep like a volcano, so she broke off a piece and gobbled it up. The chocolate was creamy and sweet and oh so good. Dahlia broke off another piece. And another. And another. And before she knew it, Dahlia had eaten all the chocolate.
Hopping off the counter, she looked around for chocolate she could use to replace it, but there was none – not even in the pantry or in her mother’s secret stash.
The front door opened, and her brother Louis raced into the kitchen and over to the pitcher of drinking water sitting on the table. Dahlia leaped away from the pantry.
“Dahlia, what—?” and he stopped. Seeing chocolate crumbs on the counter, Louis raised his eyebrows high. “Oh you’re in so much trouble.”
Dahlia looked around frantically. “What do I do?”
“Louis, help me out,” she pleaded.
“Find chocolate to replace it,” he snapped.
“There’s not any left!” she shrieked.
“Well, go get some more.”
Dahlia froze, wide eyed, while Louis edged out of the kitchen and the front door slammed behind him. Her little heart bumped against the inside of her chest as she looked around the kitchen once more in futility.
Dahlia’s father and other male members of the community got chocolate from the Anacondas who lived in the old, stone temple down by the river. Actually, they stole cocoa beans from the Anacondas who lived in the old stone temple down by the river, for the snakes were an ill-tempered bunch and not fond of sharing. In order to bring their wives the coveted sweet, the husbands would make a marmoset chain by holding each others’ ankles, drop down into the temple at midday when the Anacondas were asleep, and steal cocoa beans. It was a dangerous venture, and the children were forbidden from going to the temple or even to the river nearby.
But the chocolate was gone. Her mother would be angry, her mother would be sad, and her mother would be embarrassed when company arrived that night and there was no desert. So with a deep breath, Dahlia left the house and swung from vine to vine through the treetops, down to the river.
The water ran swiftly under the branches, tumbling over rocks and crashing in white heaps. Dahlia looked down, and the motion of the water beneath made her head feel like it was spinning. She decided to not look down again and scampered onward. The sand colored, temple brick loomed through the trees, and picking a branch, she snuck out over the ruins. Cracks spread like spiders’ webs across one wall, and a portion of the roof was completely gone. Dahlia’s padded fingers and toes made no sounds against the tree bark, and though she listened closely, she could hear nothing but the river. Mist rose off the water and dampened her fur when she finally stopped and looked down into the temple depths.
Shadows shrouded most of the sanctum, but thin bands of light streaked across the floors where stones had been knocked from the walls. Dahlia watched and waited while fear prickled the hairs on the top of her head. Then, she saw movement – slow, smooth flashes of green. Dahlia drew back closer to the tree trunk, and her chest rose and fell rapidly. Gathering courage after a few moments, Dahlia crept back, jumped down to the roof, and sneaking up to the hole, quickly spotted hand and foot holds she could use to climb down. Down, down, she descended, and the further she went, the more clearly she could see.
Giant green snakes lounged all over the stone floor of the temple, their skin appearing a bit flaky. Not asleep, they scowled and hissed at one another and seemed to Dahlia to be generally unpleasant, even to each other. But all along the ancient walls stood piles of cocoa beans. Descending a few more feet, Dahlia reached the first pile and extended her little hands to pick one when, dragging a blast of air with it, one of the Anacondas snapped at her with its massive jaws. The snake just barely missed Dahlia’s head. Withdrawing abruptly, she scampered back up the wall with teeth snapping at her tail. On the roof again, she gazed back into the temple as the Anaconda slunk back down and curled up on a pile of beans.
Dahlia moved away from the hole in the roof and took refuge back in the tree branches. She rubbed her little hands together. What was she to do? Sneaking in would not work. Even though she was quiet, the snakes were not asleep, and she was not fast enough alone. The branches rustled over her head, and Dahlia looked up. Flecks of purple flitted back and forth, punctuated by a cheerful song.
“Hello?” Dahlia ventured.
The movement ceased, and a purple bird’s head poked out of the leaves. “Hello,” he chirped back.
Dahlia watched him curiously. He was fast as he hopped out of the leaves and regarded her with first one eye then the other. His feathers were dark with a distinct purple sheen that became more obvious when the sunlight struck them, and he had a short blackish grey beak. He was a bit taller than Dahlia, but she thought they might be about the same size when she grew up.
“I’m Dahlia,” she introduced herself. “I’m a Marmoset. What’s your name?”
“I’m Martin,” he cheeped. “And I’m a Purple Martin.”
“Yes,” he sighed. “My parents thought they were hilarious.” His voice sounded a bit strange – not just because he was a bird. He sounded like he was not from around the rainforest.
“Where are you from?” Dahlia inquired.
“Well sometimes, I’m from here. Sometimes, I’m from North America. Depends on the time of year. We move around a lot.”
“Oh,” Dahlia replied. “I’ve always lived here in the trees.”
“So why were you down in the temple?” Martin asked. “It’s not a place for young ones.”
Dahlia hung her head. “I need chocolate. I accidentally ate Mom’s, and there’s none left.”
“Hmmmm,” Martin mused. “Well the cocoa beans would fix that.”
“But the Anacondas are too fast. I’ll never get them,” she lamented.
“Well, have you asked for some?”
Dahlia laughed. “Ask? One almost ate me!”
“Well maybe they need something you have.”
Dahlia shook her head.
“Let’s go have a look at them.” Martin hopped across the roof and peered down inside the temple. Dahlia followed behind on tiptoe. Just as she had left them, the Anacondas sprawled over the cocoa beans. They slithered and rolled around on the stones. Anytime they bumped together, they hissed and snapped at one another.
“Looks like they’re scratching,” observed Dahlia.
Martin ruffled and shook his feathers. “They do.” A few moments passed while the snakes still slithered and scratched. “Follow me, Dahlia. I think I can help.”
Martin flew up into the branches of the tree, and Dahlia followed just a few moments behind him. As she hoisted herself up into the crown of the tree, she found another bird bustling about and moving sticks, leaves, and other items. Her feathers were a duller color than Martin’s, more grey.
“Hi,” Dahlia greeted her.
“Dahlia, this is my wife Mary. Mary, Dahlia.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Mary twittered.
Martin hopped over to a pile of materials Mary was forming into a nest. He pecked around until he found a few twigs with strange yellow flowers whose petals looked a bit like spiders’ legs, brought them over, and dropped them at Dahlia’s feet.
“Here’s your ticket to the cocoa beans,” Martin told her.
“Why would Anacondas want sticks with yellow flowers?” Dahlia asked.
“It’s not the sticks. It’s what they make. You said they looked itchy. This is a North American plant called Witch Hazel, and we’re going to make tea out of it that will make them less itchy.”
So Martin and Dahlia set to heating water, crushing the sticks, and mixing the two together. And before the afternoon sun dropped low, Dahlia had the special concoction in a bottle that, while small, was big in comparison to her. She thanked Martin and Mary for their help and raced back to the temple roof. Gazing down, she found that nothing had changed, except that, as it was later in the afternoon now, the Anacondas moved around more. She hesitated, but the smell of cocoa beans wafted up from the temple. Now was as good of a time as any.
Dropping through the roof onto a ledge created by a row of decorative brick, Dahlia set the bottle down on the ledge. “Hey, Anacondas!”
Every snake in the temple shifted and looked up. The sound of their scales again the stone, cocoa beans, and each other reminded Dahlia of branches rustling in a thunderstorm. She froze at the sight of their yellow eyes and black slit pupils.
“Little Marmosssset,” one of them hissed.
“How are you?” Dahlia finally found courage to continue the conversation as the snakes all slithered near the hole in the roof.
“Assssss good asssssss can be expected,” the giant snake replied.
“Pardon me.” Dahlia had to fight to keep her voice from shaking, but with each word, she grew more confident. “But your skin looks flaky, and I can’t help but notice that you can’t seem to get comfortable.”
“And what of it,” the Anaconda snapped back.
“Well…I have something from a far off land that will cure any itch.”
“Hmmmm.” The snake began to slither up the walls of the temple creeping closer and closer to Dahlia, but she stood her ground. “And what issssss it you want in return for thisssssss cure.”
“Just a few cocoa beans.” Her reply came quickly.
“Yessssssss,” the snake continued. “And why sssssshould we give them to you when your kind hassssss been ssssstealing from ussssssss for yearsssssss?”
“Um, well, I’ve never stolen from you.”
The Anaconda drew nearer. “Oh but you tried earlier today.”
“Ah… I…I didn’t have anything to trade then. But I do now,” she stammered. She held the bottle out toward him. “And I can get you more of it!” she added without thinking clearly.
The snake was almost to the ledge now. “Let ussssss try it firssssst. Then we will let you know.”
As the snake was nearly upon her, Dahlia tossed the bottle out, and the Anaconda caught it effortlessly in the curls of its body. Down it sank to the floor of the temple where the other snakes gathered round. It took them some time as they struggled to remove the lid. Finally, a smaller snake was successful by curling its body around the lid, squeezing its muscles, and uncurling again. Since all of the snakes were preoccupied, Dahlia thought it best to go ahead and gather a few beans. She did so with ease and without notice. As she moved them, she could hear the snakes discussing Martin’s concoction. It was cool and refreshing and did indeed stop the itches.
“Well, Little Marmossssset,” the Anaconda finally declared. “It issssss wonderful at ssssssstoping the itchessssss, but we will have to take thissssssss assssss payment for all the other sssssstolen beanssssss.”
Dahlia grinned. “Okay, well if you change your mind and want to trade, call up to Martin. He’ll know where to find me.” And with that, Dahlia darted away before the snakes could move toward her again. Back out on the roof, Dahlia rolled four cocoa beans into a little pile. With a sharp stick, she poked a hole in each, threaded a piece of vine through them, and set off for home, calling “Goodbye” to Martin and Mary on her way.
Back in the house, Dahlia opened the door to the scowls of her whole family. For five minutes straight, her father and mother lectured her on stealing the chocolate, but when they saw the cocoa beans, they stopped. Then after a few moments more, they lectured her even more severely because what she had done was so dangerous. But in the end, they decided not to punish her, as she had made it right.
That night, the dinner party ended, and everyone ate the chocolate Dahlia and her mother had prepared from her beans. It was rich and delicious and the best Dahlia had ever tasted.