No gifts from the Wise Men
No gifts from the Wise Men
(A chapter from the novel Los Hijos del Mar)
The Wise Men came and went without leaving me any gifts. Under the dry, Christmas tree that our great-aunts, Josefa and Toña, decorated with paper chains and strings of stale popcorn, we find only the presents for my sisters, Noris and Pili, but nothing for me. The gifts that should have been mine, which the aunties swear they saw at midnight when they got up to pee, are missing. My aunts look everywhere – under the sofa and the bed, in the guest room and even inside the trunk where they keep stuff they never use – and still they find nothing. They are just not good at finding anything, gifts or husbands, which is why they never got married.
I stand in the middle of that room that smells of old and I cry inconsolably.
“This don’t surprize me any,” observes Chola, the maid of the house. “With how bad this girl is, Lord only knows what mortal sin she’s commited this time. We cain’t really ‘xpect the Wise Men to bring her toys, cain’t we?”
“Be quiet, Chola,“ says aunt Josefa firmly. “In this house the Wise Men always bring presents to all the girls. Besides, this child is in no age to commit a mortal sin. So hush and keep looking. Her presents have to be here somewhere.”
Chola draggs her feet and moves about sourly. She lifts the lid to the garbage can, full of flies, and pretends to look inside, knowing that no Wise Men would have touched the filth, not even by mistake.
Chola is twenty years old and she works, not because she has to, but because she wants to work. She says that in her pueblo she has a man who would readily leave his wife and children and would build her a home, if she wants him to. She doesn’t, because she already feels at home with our aunts and “someone has to help the old women.” Besides, she “is not about to be washing any man’s dirty underwear, even if he has a car and wears a tie.”
“This doesn’t happen in my pueblo.” she says, still talking. “The Wise Men only bring stuff to the good girls. Maybe there just ain’t ‘nough toys by the time they get here. Not ‘nough to go around, ‘specially if they waste them on bad girls from the city.”
“You are mistaken,” assures aunt Toña, looking inside the linen closet. “You're thinking of Santa Claus, and yes, he does keep track of which child is well behaved and which child is not. Not so our Wise Men. They give out their gifts to all children, regardless.”
After a while, we all give up and stop looking. Aunt Josefa sits carefully on the green velvet sofa to fan her face with her dirty handkerchief. She puts up her swollen legs up on the coffee table. Her sister sits as well, with a glass full of sherry with ice. She unties her brassiere. Panting and sweating inside their flannel robes they make me sit between them, smothering me in hugs that fail to comfort me. “Here darling. Don’t you worry. We will find your gifts.”
I have no idea why we were sent to spend the holiday with the great-aunts. Someone back home decided that it would be best for our dad, Licho, to spend these difficult days of the anniversary of our mother’s death without us. No one asked for our opinion. We were simply separated. My brothers, Manolo and Talí, were sent to the ranch with our aunt Cris, and we, the girls, were put on a train bound for the house of the great-aunts.
I cry. I want to be with my dad but not with the frail man who walks on crutches and falls all the time, but with my old dad, the one I used to know, the Licho before who was strong and who could tie his own shoes. I don’t want to be with these great-aunts who live in a house that reeks of old. Most of all, I want the Wise Men to realize that they forgot to give me my toys and come back right now, even if I have to see them in plain daylight and never get anything from them again.
“Now, now, little girl, stop crying, your toys are here somewhere, you’ll see.”
I was the first to get out of bed this morning, and despite my whining, my sisters stayed asleep in the guest room. Finally Pili wakes up and enters the room. Reluctantly, she greets the aunts with a good-morning kiss and then goes straight to the tree to open her presents. Only then she notices my crying.
“What is wrong with her?” she asks.
“It seems there are no gifts for your sister,” replies aunt Toña.
Pili looks through all the gifts, setting her own to one side.
“And how come the Wise Men did not bring my sister any presents?”
Chola is quick to explain:
“Turns out that Mr. Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar are too old and well… they just forgot.”
“That’s not true,” Pili says firmly. She opens her box of new crayons. “They are not that old, you know.” She hands me a handful of crayons along with her new coloring book. It has a picture of Cinderella. I am still angy, so I paint her hair purple.
“Yes they are. Very old,” insists Chola.
“They are not! Right?” The question is for our aunts. “See, if they were old they would not be able to ride a horse, or a camel, and especially not an elephant. Besides, they are magicians. And magicians never forget anything, not even the wizard Merlin who is much older would forget because he has his wand. When something is forgotten or lost, magicians just wave their wand and Abracadabra!, there it is.”
Chola stops setting the breakfast table and goes straight to the Nativity set. She grabs the clay figures of the three wise men and shows them to Pili.
“Come on, then. Show me. Where are their wands?”
My sister looks at the figures. Melchor and Baltasar are maimed, faded, clay figurines. The paint of the beard on the Moorish King has peeled off and is now white.
“Oh, how ignorant you are, Chola,” says Pili, as she places the figurines back. “Can’t you see they are kings?”
“Have you ever seen a king carry anything?”
“Cain’t say I’ve bumped into a king lately.”
“Obviously. Kings have servants and the servants carry everything down to the magic wands. Ugh! You're so dumb!”
“Pili!” my aunt Josefa scolds. “Thank God your mother is is not alive to hear you being rude like that. From the lips of a lady, young lady, only kind and beautiful words must be heard. You apologize to Chola right this moment.”
“I am sorry,” my sister says, without remorse, and then adds “but the Wise Men did not forget anything. Most likely, a burglar entered at midnight and stole my sister’s toys.”
I cry louder. The aunts give me a sweet marzipan but I don’t want it. They hand me a cocada and I want to throw it away, but I know it’s a sin to throw food on the floor, so I don’t. The aunts promise to buy me a doll as soon as the store opens. But I don’t want a doll, what I want is to go home with Licho. Then the aunts decide that Pili and Noris will have to share one of their toys. They send us off to wake up Noris.
In the bedroom, Noris is covered up to her head with the sheets. Pili pulls the blankets and yells, “Wake up! The Wise Men didn’t bring anything for our sister.” Noris does not move. Pili shakes her, but still she does not wake up. Pili pulls again and nothing. We take the tip of the sheet and stuff it in her mouth. Not moving. Frightened, we run to tell the aunts that Noris is dead. The aunts come running and when they pull the sheets they see a pool of urine. Calmly, they explain that no, she is not really dead because dead girls never wet their bed. Then, with a firm voice, they order Noris to wake up. But the peed-out girl is not moving. Her eyes are shut tight. The aunts ask Chola to help them, and they sit my sister in the rocking chair. Noris still has her eyes closed.
“Let's see how dead she is,” they say, as they push the back of the rocking chair forward. Just before she falls on her face my sister stiffens her body and stops. The aunts push back up and forward again and again Noris stiffens. Pili and I laugh and our sister instantly rises and lunges toward us, throwing blows.
“Ah!” laughs Chola, “she came back from burning hell! And look how well she learned to fight from the little devils.”
My sister Noris spends the long afternoon washing the soiled sheets in the laundry room. It was her punishment, not because she peed on the bed, but because she hid the gifts the Wise Men brought for me. She did that, she told the aunts, because I didn’t share my red dress crinoline. And because our grandma always buys me clothes and never buys her any, and that's not fair.
While the thief girl scrubs away, her two sisters wait without touching their own new toys. It’s more fun to play together, and besides, they are having fun bursting the soap bubbles that fly around all over the laundry.