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The Canyon Flier
by C. Dawn McCallum
Style of Magical Realism
1 F / 9 M*
OLD ERNESTO mid-90s
JULIA about 18-years old, his daughter, long-gone
AMADOR about 18-years old, a bracero, Ernesto’s brother, long-gone
YOUNG ERNESTO about 18-years old, a bracero
ELISEO a bracero who believes
MANUEL a bracero who questions
HUGO a bracero who is hopeful
JAVIER a bracero who fears
OTHER BRACEROS men or women – any age
THE PILOT a man or a woman – any age
Other BRACEROS are needed to mill around behind the veil—unseen—while waiting for the trucks. They walk away gradually as they learn about the race, and as the race begins. They are seen onstage later—free—when Ernesto is reunited with his brother behind the veil.
Ernesto’s home. Somewhere in Texas.
In 2019 and in 1943
*There’s flexibility in gender of the cast. Do what works for your production that is respectful of the characters and their story.
The set is simple. A chair for dreaming. A lamp. Maybe a table and a rug. A thin, white veil of a curtain extends along the back of Ernesto’s chair. The veils are lit from behind to show the shadows of Ernesto’s memories.
JULIA. (JULIA in a white dress—barefoot perhaps—sees ERNESTO sleeping in his chair. She watches him, giving him a final moment of rest. Then, gently.) Ernesto. You awake? It’s time.
ERNESTO. Hmm? (Beat.) Oh, it’s you. I thought you’d be later.
JULIA. (Sweetly.) No, it’s today. Your big day.
ERNESTO. Ah. I can’t wait to see him again. My brother. Amador! (He calls to the sky. Beat.) He saved me, you know?
JULIA. Yes, I heard. I know you miss his singing.
ERNESTO. Oh, little one, more than words can ever say. (Laughs.) I’ll never forget the last day I heard him sing. He sang a perfect song.
JULIA. (Kidding.) You never told me that story.
ERNESTO. No? (Disbelief.) I’ll tell you, then. Before we go. (ERNESTO sits again, pulling her to perch on the arm of his chair. JULIA indulges him, stroking his hair.)
JULIA. You were braceros, weren’t you?
ERNESTO. Yes. Braceros. It was during the Big War. The Americans didn’t have the workers to bring in the harvest, so a deal was made with our government. And we went. The money was good.
JULIA. But it was hell.
ERNESTO. Yes. Hell, because we didn’t understand the contracts we signed. Hell, because of the fourteen-hour work days. Hell, because they hated us. (Remembering.) The filth. (Beat. Smiles.) But it’s my brother I’m telling you about.
ERNESTO. That day. (The light behind the white veil turns on. BRACEROS stand waiting in various poses… hands in pockets, on hips, arms crossed, etc.) We stared out at the road, watching for the cloud of dust that would rise when a truck would come to take us back to the fields. We had a long day ahead of us with our short-handled hoes. We’d hack the beets under the leaves, and our fingers, too, if we weren’t careful. (Remorseful chuckle.)
JULIA. (JULIA takes ERNESTO’S hands in hers and caresses them.) You still have the scars.
ERNESTO. El Norte was supposed to be better than this. But the money was more than anything I could have earned in Chihuahua.
JULIA. You were just boys.
ERNESTO. My back was killing me. None of us had bathed in weeks. The Texans made me sick. The words they yelled at us in town when we tried to buy food at the end of the work week. Filthy and half-dead, we were, from picking the beets that would die on the vines if the braceros hadn’t come. It was their government who had called there when the war started.
ERNESTO. (Stands, seeing the long-ago sky. The BRACEROS behind the veil shift their poses) That moment before the trucks came, when we stood together in the quiet of the morning, the way the sky looked against the horizon. It was the only bit of heaven we saw each day. (AMADOR and YOUNG ERNESTO step out from behind the veil. JULIA sees ERNESTO’S memory and watches.) To me then, the only heaven I heard was my brother’s low-humming song. But Amador was quite that morning.
YOUNG ERNESTO. (To AMADOR.) You promised.
JULIA. (Walking to AMADOR and YOUNG ERNESTO.) Oh, yes. I remember this part. You used to tell me this story when I was a young girl. The night the promise was made. You were little boys lying side-by side-in your bed, resting …
…under a dusty stream of moonlight. …under a dusty stream of moonlight.
JULIA. Your father’s snoring woke you and made you giggle. It was the kind of laugh like when you were in your mother’s womb.
ERNESTO. You remember well, my Julia. (Kisses her, holds her.) How I’ve missed you. Too early, you left me.
JULIA. By the time the humor of your father’s grumbling roar faded, you weren’t sleepy anymore.
ERNESTO. We were wide awake.
JULIA. And you stared into each other’s eyes.
ERNESTO. Mouthing words. Speaking in a way we could hear in our hearts.
JULIA. (JULIA and ERNESTO make hand shapes together.) With your hands, you made shapes that told each other their thoughts.
ERNESTO. (ERNESTO touches his mouth, a hand-shape from the secret sign language.) “Want to talk?”
JULIA. (JULIA tells the story she heard many times. She speaks as AMADOR did that night, with her hands, yet narrating with her words.) “No,” Amador’s said with his hands. “Tired of talk.” Amador covered his mouth with his hand. (Beat. JULIA places her hand on her heart.) There’s nothing left to say.
ERNESTO. (ERNESTO moves downstage, laments the memory of his brother’s pain, his brother’s promise. JULIA follows, feeling her father’s sorrow.)
JULIA. You took something from your heart and something from your head. You promised that would speak for them both. And—in return—Amador would sing for you … every day. (JULIA folds herself in ERNESTO’S arms.)
. To seal the promise, Amador sat up in bed and snatched a bit of moonbeam shooting over them. He let it rest in his mouth, heavy on his stilled tongue. From now on…
… there was room only for truth. … there was room only for truth.
(They laugh. Bittersweet.)
ERNESTO. (The light behind the veil illuminates the BRACEROS waiting, posed, behind. ERNESTO crosses closer to the veil.) Amador. He would listen to the sounds of the world as if they were the drumbeats for the song he would sing. A song that would last until he had nothing more to give. A song that he would perfect each day until he got it right.
JULIA. But he didn’t sing that morning when you waited for the trucks.
ERNESTO. (Vibrant.) Every day. I watched my brother close his eyes and listen to the rhythms of the world. He listened to the moving of feet. (ERNESTO and JULIA dance out the story.) The flapping of wings. (Twirls.) The rustling of leaves. The beating of hearts.
When Amador found the combination of rhythms that moved him, he opened his mouth and sang, wordlessly letting the sounds swirl around everything seen and unseen. (The dance ends. ERNESTO sees the airplane flying above the audience. The airplane is heard.)
But on that day, instead of the low hum of Amador’s song for the new day, I heard the growl of an airplane. It was the same one that had passed over the day we arrived. (JULIA sits to listen.) All the braceros were silent. From the plane, a hand threw out a stack of papers that rained down, swishing from side to side.
YOUNG ERNESTO. (AMADOR and YOUNG ERNESTO emerge from behind the veil with fliers in their hands. They play their scene where ERNESTO can see them.) That’s the first time you’ve smiled this morning, Amador.
ERNESTO. Picking up the fliers, the foreign words stared at us from the page.
BRACERO ELISEO. Ingles?
BRACERO MANUEL. Can anyone read this?
ERNESTO. Some men folded the papers and put them in their back pockets. Some grumbled, crumping up the fliers, throwing them down to the ground.
YOUNG ERNESTO. (Staring at the words on the flier.) Maybe we can figure it out. Maybe there are some words that looked like ones we know how to read in Spanish. Amador, can you help?
ERNESTO. But my brother was already smiling. Amador understood the words. After all, silence was Amador’s first language and words on paper are the quietest way of talking.
YOUNG ERNESTO. You know, don’t you?
ERNESTO. Of course, Amador understood. The men around us chattered on. More nothing-talk. I watched my brother’s face. I waited. Amador’s eyebrows furrowed and danced over his bright eyes. He turned his head from sided to side. He looked to the east and smiled, but the words called his attention back to the flier. Amador looked restless. He looked as though he wanted to run. But he stopped himself.
AMADOR. (Music begins. AMADOR dances his story to YOUNG ERNESTO. AMADOR looks to the sky, then to the paper. He holds out his arms.)
YOUNG ERNESTO. Angel wings?
AMADOR. (AMADOR touches his chest. He dances his hands in front of him.)
YOUNG ERNESTO. Win freedom. (Beat.) Freedom?
(BRACEROS stir behind the veil, listening.)
AMADOR. (Amador motions, then points east. The airplane is silenced.)
YOUNG ERNESTO. We must go to the canyon.
ERNESTOR. A fire filled Amador. Without making a sound, Amador was shouting.
YOUNG ERNESTO. Let’s go. I’m ready. (YOUNG ERNESTO starts to the canyon, but Amador grabs his arm.)
AMADOR. (He sweeps his arms toward the crowd of BRACEROS.)
YOUNG ERNESTO. No. He says we must all go.
BRACERO ELISEO. (Emerging from behind the veil.) We have to go to the canyon.
BRACERO MANUEL. What are you talking about?
ERNESTO. The man looked for a rise of dust on the road.
BRACERO MANUEL. The truck will be here any minute.
BRACERO HUGO. But Amador says we can win freedom at the canyon.
BRACERO MANUEL. Are you going to believe this burro? The only thing you’ll win by going to the canyon is a way back across the border. You’ll lose your job and everything you’ve worked for.
ERNESTO. I didn’t listen to the insult against my brother. I didn’t care about anything anyone had to say anymore. I felt the freedom that Amador saw in the letters that magically spoke to him. I felt the freedom that burst from his heart. (Beat.) At the canyon, there was a song.
AMADOR. (Pleading, hand to heart.)
BRACERO ELISEO. What’s he saying?
BRACERO MANUEL. Yes, Ernesto. (Laughs. Emerges from behind the veil.) What is he saying? (BRACERO MANUEL crumples up his flier and throws it at ERNESTO’s head.)
YOUNG ERNESTO. (He swats the paper away.) There’s a race. A chance to win freedom. The man in the plane will be at the canyon. He’ll take the one who gets across first to a place farther north where he can stay for good.
BRACERO MANUEL. Why would a man with a plane give freedom to one of us? What does he care? (Beat.) Not me, I’m staying behind. I want to keep my job.
YOUNG ERNESTO. Keep it. (YOUNG ERNESTO heads toward the canyon, some follow him. AMADOR goes too. OTHER BRACEROS remain in “waiting” poses behind the veil.) The fewer who come, the better chance we have. Stay if you want. Wait for the dust to come.
ERNESTO. Most of the men stayed behind. They were right. The truck would come. And the men who went to the canyon would lose their jobs and be sent back home.
YOUNG ERNESTO. I can’t stand around waiting for more misery. I’m tired of the short-handled hoe tearing my skin to shreds. I’m tired of breaking my back in the fields. I’ll go home if they make me, but we can’t pass up a chance a better life.
JULIA. For freedom.
ERNESTO. We came to the canyon and saw the plane perched near the ridge.
THE PILOT. (Waving. Shouting through the cone at his lips.) Stand there. (THE PILOT points to the edge of the canyon before them. The men line up on either side of ERNESTO’s chair, which is the edge of their canyon.)
ERNESTO. It wasn’t much of a canyon. A small stream cut the center below. The walls were steep, but a man could scale down them easy with care.
THE PILOT. The winner gets two hundred dollars! (The BRACEROS cheer.)
ERNESTO. We all knew what that meant. (Laughs.)
THE PILOT. The winner rides the airplane north.
ERNESTO. It took a minute to sink in for most of them, but we knew right away.
YOUNG ERNESTO. One of us will go north and make a home for the rest of the family.
BRACERO HUGO. No more sugar beets.
YOUNG ERNESTO. Do you trust him?
ERNESTO. In his quiet way, Amador smiled and nodded so only I could see. (Beat.) The pilot waited and watched us. Each man scanned the canyon, trying to find the quickest way down. Studying the possible paths, we looked for branches to hold on to and places to set their feet so that we would not slip.
BRACERO JAVIER. It’s dangerous.
BRACERO ELISEO. Go back to the sugar beets, then.
BRACERO HUGO. Yes, you might catch the truck if you go now. (Laughs.)
ERNESTO. A few men inched away from the canyon, looking first at one another and then back to the place where the others still waited for the truck.
BRACERO JAVIER. I make enough money. (Walking away.) My family needs me. I won’t be able to work if I’m hurt.
BRACERO HUGO. Go get your short-handled hoe, then. (Plotting his trek across the canyon.)
BRACERO ELISEO. I’ll take my chances. (Excited.)
ERNESTO. I listened, but I didn’t care what they had to say. I was going across. I would be the first. With two hundred dollars in my pocket, I would ride in the airplane to a place farther north. I pictured his path across the canyon. And I could feel Amador standing next to me doing the same thing. I could feel a song rising deep within my brother. Some more men headed back to the trucks. Some stepped back to watch as the remaining men chose a starting point along the rim of the canyon and focused on their routes to the other side. The pilot waved. We readied ourselves.
THE PILOT. Listos? (THE PILOT raised an arm.)
ERNESTO. I fixed my eyes on my path. I could feel the other men farther down the rim.
YOUNG ERNESTO. Don’t think about them. Just get across. (ERNESTO lifted his arm to signal the pilot that he was ready.)
THE PILOT. (THE PILOT slashed his arm through the air.) Vamos!
ERNESTO. (The lights change and music grows. The BRACEROS run their race behind the veil in a slow motion dance. ERNESTO runs alongside the shadows. JULIA spins in her white dress.) I grabbed a branch jutting out under the rim, launching myself to a level piece of ground. Sliding down to the next spot that would hold me, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, three men making their way down. I caught hold of a branch to steady myself before jumping to the next spot.
BRACERO MANUEL. (A scream from behind the veil.)
ERNESTO. I heard the sound of someone slipping down the side of the canyon, but I didn’t look to see if the man was hurt. I didn’t need to. The scream made it clear enough. Put it out of your mind, I told myself. Watching my hands, my feet, I latched onto the safest places to grab and step. (The run becomes a dance. THE PILOT runs across the stage.) Just under the sound of grunts and shifting feet, a familiar low hum (A SOUND begins.) grew behind him on the rim of the canyon. (Beat.) The sound came from Amador.
AMADOR. (AMADOR raises his arms behind the veil. A SOUND grows.)
ERNESTO. I could feel my brother still standing at the edge of the cliff. At first I wondered why Amador hadn’t run. But as I neared the bottom of the canyon…Amador. (ERNESTO goes to AMADOR’S shadow.) I heard the beginning of music. Music that made birds want to jump onto the wind and float. From somewhere deep inside, through his chest and out of his mouth, Amador pushed out a song.
JULIA. A perfect song.
YOUNG ERNESTO. (Lights change. YOUNG ERNESTO emerges from behind the veil.) This song will get me across. I’ll be strong enough now.
ERNESTO. My feet hit the bottom of the canyon. I took off running. Another man was right behind me. I pushed harder. I focused on the song, letting it guide me across. I saw the water and ran through the canyon, Amador’s howl seemed to tear the air! My feet flew faster than he could imagine. As I splashed down in the stream, I knew something had changed. It wasn’t the water rushing around his ankles or the stones that seemed to tremble under my feet. A fire stormed through my brain. (BRACERO ELISEO is close to the edge of the veil.) I heard the other man land in the water behind me. (Beat.)
JULIA. Keep going!
ERNESTO. I ran through the stream, looking for steady footing, when I saw a shadow pass on the water around me. The shadow was too big for a bird and too quiet for an airplane. I heard shouting all around me, and I slowed down.
YOUNG ERNESTO. I’ve lost. (Stopping.)
ERNESTO. I looked up to the edge of the canyon. The pilot ran back and forth along the rim of the canyon like a crazy man. My chest heaving, I followed the pilot’s eyes. (The BRACEROS emerge. All stand gazing up, watching Amador run upon the air, across the canyon. Above the canyon, Amador’s long black hair whipped behind him as his song ripped the sky open, setting a path above them all. Singing, Amador ran on the air—a bridge on the sky—to the other side of the canyon.)
YOUNG ERNESTO. I have to meet my brother.
ERNESTO. I jumped to a branch sticking out of the canyon wall and pulled myself up. My hands and feet found all the strongest spots. I wasn’t even aware of where the other men were now. It didn’t matter. I had to get to Amador to say goodbye before he left on the airplane. (Beat.) I touched the rim of the canyon. Pulling my up, I collapsed on the ground, dragging myself forward.
YOUNG ERNESTO. Amador. How did you do it? How did you make the pathway in the sky?
ERNESTO. But there wasn’t a sound to guide me to my brother. (YOUNG ERNESTO crawls to THE PILOT who stands over AMADOR.) I saw the pilot’s boots and knees, trembling as the pilot walked toward me.
THE PILOT. (Sinks to his knees. THE PILOT digs down into his pockets and takes out a wad of money. His eyes are filled with tears.) You won.
YOUNG ERNESTO. No. Mi hermano. (THE PILOT shakes his head. YOUNG ERNESTO saw his brother’s still body and howls with grief.)
ERNESTO. A rush of sadness more powerful than the water that carved the little canyon behind me poured through my body. I beat the ground. I beat my chest. I took up my brother’s hands and buried my face in them. (THE PILOT rests his hand on Ernesto’s shoulder.)
THE PILOT. I’ll help you. (THE PILOT points to the airplane and starts to pick up AMADOR to take him to the airplane.)
YOUNG ERNESTO. (YOUNG ERNESTO jumps up and presses his hands on his brother’s lifeless body.) No!
ERNESTO. I looked back at the canyon and the invisible highway built by his brother’s perfect song.
YOUNG ERNESTO. No. (Beat.) Aqui.
ERNESTO. I didn’t know how to tell the pilot what I was thinking, what I knew had to be. (YOUNG ERNESTO signals with his hands.) Let him rest in this perfect place.
THE PILOT. (Still trembling from Amador’s song and what he witnessed.) Bury him here? (YOUNG ERNESTO nods. All the lights fade except the light on ERNESTO and JULIA. All others exit behind the veil.)
ERNESTO. I let my brother go. And I dug at the ground with my hands.
JULIA. It’s time. (ERNESTO nods and looks at his room for the last time. The veil is lit from behind show the shadows of AMADOR and others. ERNESTO and JULIA walk behind the veil. AMADOR raises his arms and we hear the SONG. ERNESTO raises his arms and the two brothers embrace. JULIA stays with them, looking on. Music continues. The BRACEROS and THE PILOT slowly emerge from behind the curtain and enter the room. They walk downstage with the power of ARMADOR’S song that carries them across a bridge in the sky.
This story is based on a dream I had in 2001. In the dream, I went to a home somewhere in rural Texas. I was told I needed to go there, by whom I don’t recall. There was an old man who lived there who had a story to tell me.
The home reminded me of ones I’d seen in southwest Texas. In the dream, the old man sat in a comfortable chair. A thin blanket served as a curtain on the window behind him. I sat across from him in a wooden chair and took notes as he told me about what happened at a canyon when he was a migrant worker during World War II.
As he told me the story, we traveled to that canyon, to when he was a young man. In the dream, I lived this story by his side. I saw his brother and the other workers. I saw the canyon and the plane. I heard his brother’s song.
And when his brother sang that pure beautiful tone, I soared beside the brother as he ran on the bridge in the sky.
This dream is as vivid to me today as it was the day I awoke from it. This dream lives.
I still hear his brother’s song. I still see his brother running on the sky. But most of all, I still feel his longing to see his brother again. I feel how grateful he was for his brother’s sacrifice and love.