'The Secret Footprints'

Story Time

March 14, 2001|By Julia Alvarez

Editor's note: A curious girl bridges the distance between two cultures.

On an island not too far away and in a time not so long ago lived a secret tribe called the ciguapas. They made their homes underwater in cool blue caves hung with seashells and seaweed. They came out on land to hunt for food only at night because they were so fearful of humans.

Luckily, the ciguapas had a special secret that kept them safe from people. Their feet were on backward! When they walked on land, they left footprints going in the opposite direction. That is how the ciguapas had kept their whereabouts unknown for so long.

But once, their secret was almost discovered.

In the tribe lived a young ciguapa who was very beautiful, with bright eyes and golden skin and black hair that flowed all the way down her back. Unlike the other ciguapas, she was not fearful of humans. That is why her name was Guapa, which means brave and bold, and also beautiful, in Spanish.

The tribe worried that Guapa's boldness might reveal their secret. They asked the queen to speak to her.

"Stop being such a mischief!" the queen ciguapa scolded her.

"But I'm bold and brave and curious about everything," Guapa said, defending herself. "That's why you named me Guapa, remember?"

"You must protect our secret," the queen said sternly.

"But why?" Guapa asked.

No ciguapa had ever dared to ask the queen that question before.

The queen said, "If people find out where we live, they will capture us because we are so beautiful. Doctors will want to put us in cages and study us. We will be forced to live on land."

That's when Guapa promised with all her heart that she would be very, very careful.

But one afternoon, Guapa forgot. She was looking up through the water at the sun sparkling like a thousand starfish in the sky. Up she came to the surface to take a closer look. It was that time of day when the island is most beautiful. The air seemed splashed with gold. Birds with feathers the colors of rainbows were practicing their favorite songs. Palm trees were swaying, as if they were listening to a catchy tune in the breeze. From the woods came the sweet smell of flowers.

Guapa could not help herself. She climbed out of the water and started walking in the woods. She came upon a family having a picnic under a shade tree by the river.

Guapa hid behind some bushes and watched them eating fried pastelitos and mangoes from a basket on a large piece of cloth laid out on the grass. The sight made her hungry, so hungry. She had not eaten anything since the night before.

Soon the family got up for a walk. Guapa ran from her hiding place and snatched a snack from the leftovers in the basket.

The sound of the breeze stirring the leaves startled her. She turned to run off, but she was not used to running on cloth. Down she came with a loud thump!

Hearing the noise, the family turned around. "Are you all right?" they asked as they ran to her side.

"She's really hurt," the boy said. "She can't walk."

"I'm afraid you're right, mi'jo," the father said, unwinding the cloth from around Guapa's feet. "She's twisted both her ankles badly."

Guapa nodded. She would pretend that her ankles were twisted. No matter what, she would keep the secret of the ciguapas safe.

"We better go get the doctor," the father added.

Guapa's feet went cold.

"I'll stay with her," the boy said, puffing his chest our proudly.

"Is there anything else I can get you?" the boy asked her.

This was the chance she had been waiting for. If the family returned with a doctor, the ciguapas' secret would be discovered. "I could use some water," Guapa said. She was telling the truth. She needed something to wash down the pastelitos that had gotten her into all this trouble.

"I'll bring you a coconut shell of water from the river," the boy said. "But will you be all right by yourself?"

Guapa could not believe her good luck. "Oh, yes," she said.

The minute the boy was out of sight, the ciguapas rushed out to carry Guapa away. "Sh, sh, sh," the ciguapas said when Guapa tried to explain that she could walk on her own. She scooped up some pastelitos to show her ciguapa friends how kind the boy had been. Then she left a seashell as a thank-you in their place.

Sometimes the boy goes walking in the woods, looking for Guapa. He carries his lucky seashell in his pocket to remind him of his mysterious friend.

Now, when the tribe wanders near the family's house, Guapa is allowed to go right up to the windows and peek in.

From THE SECRET FOOTPRINTS by Julia Alvarez, illustrated by Fabian Negrin. Text copyright c 2000 by Julia Alvarez. Illustrations copyright c 2000 by Fabian Negrin. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House, Inc. New York, New York. All rights reserved.

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