STORIES AND POEMS

NOCHE DE REYES

—THE NIGHT OF KINGS—

BY

MANUEL A. MELÉNDEZ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOCHE DE REYES

—THE NIGHT OF KINGS—

-1-

 The room was always dark and cool, and the aroma of oil and fresh wood was ever-present in the air.  Joselito stepped inside and stared at his grandfather’s back.  The old man was sitting hunched slightly over his worktable.  It was a fine wood table his grandfather had built.   It had careful fine details of carved birds perched on branches throughout each side, and sculptures of animals adorned all four round legs.  The boy’s foot crunched a dry twig on the floor and without looking over his shoulder his grandfather greeted him.

 “I thought you were going to sleep through the whole day, Joselito.”

 Joselito came closer and stood next to his grandpa, peeking at what the old man was carving.  He found it exciting and interesting to see how his grandfather created something beautiful from a piece of a tree.  “What are you doing?” he asked, curious about the piece of wood that soon would become something magical.

 “I’m carving the soul of a piece of the forest,” the old man said, while carefully moving his knife with precision.  He turned around and winked at his grandson.  “After I’m finished, this will be one of the strong camels for one of the Three Wise Kings.  Do you have your shoe box ready?”

 The boy nodded, then realizing his grandfather was not looking at him, softly told him ‘no’.  The old man stopped, put the knife down, and looked at Joselito.  “Why not?  I was going to take you to a spot where the greenest and finest grass grow.  No other boy your age is going to find such fresh grass for the camels.  Remember, the best grass could mean an extra gift from the Three Wise Kings.”

 “I don’t believe in that, Grandpa.  We don’t have that in New York, we have Santa Claus.”

 “Are you in New York now?”  The old man asked, and before his grandson could answer he continued.  “This is Puerto Rico where the Wise Kings are the ones to bring you gifts during Christmas, not Santa Claus.”

 “And why not?  Santa Claus came to Puerto Rico for me.  He got me a fire truck and underwears.”

 The old man shook his head and frowned, smiling gently but not pleased that his daughter insisted on keeping with the tradition she had brought from America.  More and more he was seeing this throughout the island, but the death of the Three Wise Kings tradition was something he was not going to take without a fight.  “I’ll tell you what, we are going to get you a clean shoe box filled with grass, and tonight we are going to leave it under your bed.  If tomorrow you don’t find toys underneath your bed, but just the box with grass, well…I’ll eat this piece of wood for breakfast.”

 “You can’t eat that wood, you’ll get splinters in your tongue,” the boy laughed.

 The old man chuckled and squeezed the boy’s nose.  “But I’m not going to be eating this piece of wood.  You know why?  Because after tomorrow morning you are going to see that there’s such a thing as the Three Wise Kings.”

 “Why didn’t mommy tell me about them if they are real?”

 “Ah…because your mother became too American.  She tried to forget that she put shoe boxes of grass under her bed when she was your age.”

 “She did?” Joselito eyes grew large with interest.

 “Yes she did.” The old man began to carve the piece of wood again.  “And boy was she a tough one.  Slick one too.”  He smirked as he looked up as if in his mind, he was seeing a movie of his daughter back in the old days, scraped knees and all.  “Not only was she the first one to get up in the morning ready with her shoe box, she made sure to add oatmeal in the grass.  She thought that it could get her a better gift from the Kings.  The entire day she would check the box under her bed over and over and the second the first sign of nighttime appeared across the sky she was pushing everybody to go to sleep.”  The old man smiled as his eyes twinkled with the pleasant nostalgia.  “And you should have seen her, waking up every second and peeking under the bed to see if the Three Wise Kings had already arrived.”

 “Did she ever see them?” Joselito asked now his curiosity dictating his speech.

 “Nope, that’s why they are called Wise Kings.  They made sure that everyone was asleep before they took the grass for the camels and placed gifts of toys under the beds.”

 “Have you seen them, Grandpa?”

 “Can’t say I have.  But I’ll tell you, seeing the smile on children’s faces and their happiness when someone used to shout ‘The Kings came; the Kings came!—that to me was seeing the Wise Kings even so.”

 “Why didn’t mom ever tell me about them in New York?  Well, there’s not too much grass in New York during the winter.  Only in Central Park, but the grass is brown and dried with dog poopy all over it.”

“I don’t think you’ll get too many toys with grass like that,” the old man laughed.  “Maybe that’s why they gave the job to some fat man dressed in red; all he wants is cookies and milk to make him fatter.”

Joselito laughed.  He put his arm around his grandfather and watched the old man’s hands moving delicately and surely through the knot of wood.  Something was beginning to show as chips of wood spotted his grandpa’s fingers and the top of the table.  A sweet smell entered Joselito’s nostrils and made him feel safe and happy to be with his abuelo.  “And where do the camels stay when the Wise Kings are giving gifts?”

“They stay outside eating the grass from the shoe boxes while the Kings leave the toys inside.”

“And how do the Kings come inside when all the doors are locked?”

“They become very tiny, this tiny,” the old man held his thumb and forefinger slightly apart.  “Remember they are magical beings.  They are able to squeeze through even the smallest cracks in the walls.”

“Just like Santa Claus?”

The old man stopped carving and glanced at the boy slightly annoyed at that name.  “I guess.”

Joselito walked around his grandfather’s room.  It was an extra addition to the house, built as his workshop.  Except for the worktable, there was no other piece of furniture.  As if having additional space to sit was an intrusion or something that others would misinterpret as a reason to sit and disturb his work.  It seemed Joselito was the only person who was welcome inside, and that was not lost in the child.  For that, he had grown to love his grandfather in just the little bit of time since he met him.  Around him, there were shelves that lined the walls of the room, and each one was littered with both half-finished projects and magnificent completed pieces that resembled treasures found in the finest museums.  There were sculptures of animals, birds and people.  There were wooden houses in all sizes and colors, and a large castle with dragons and gargoyles.  However, the unique and wonderful pieces were the saints and angels who held the boy with fascination and awe the very second he saw them for the first time.

“Could you teach me how to make things?” Joselito asked.

The old man lifted his head from his work and smiled.  “I’d like that very much, but first you have to find a piece of a tree that will speak to you.”

Joselito arched his eyebrows.  “Trees don’t speak, Grandpa.  What do you mean?”

The old man pushed the stool away from the table and swung his long legs around.  His brown workboots were worn and weathered, just like his face.  “Let’s do this, Joselito.  Go and get a sturdy shoe box, and not only are we going to find the finest grass in the whole island, but you are going to find a nice lovely branch that it’s going to speak to you with a soul that’s dying to come out.”

“Do I also bring the shoes that are inside the box?”

The grandfather stood up as he laughed and tossed Joselito’s hair.  “Oh my God, what did they do to your brain in New York?  Of course not, silly boy, unless you think, the camels want to walk around in your mother’s high heels.  Leave the shoes in the closet and just bring the box.  Now go on before the other children from the neighborhood start waking up and discover our special spot.”

The old man watched his grandson run out of the room, and he smiled at the innocence of the child.  It was nice having him and his daughter around; finally, there was life within the house again.  He paced through his studio, remembering when it was built at the urging of his dear late wife.  She had become enraged when he had tried to take a small corner in the kitchen to practice his carvings, and she kept finding shavings of wood mixed with her dinners.  After a special occasion was ruined because one of the guests found a piece of wood in their plate of roast pork and rice, she put her foot down and insisted that either he found a place away from the kitchen, or he better carve himself another wife.  He laughed softly at the memory, and how quickly the new room was built.  It took him and three good friends just two weeks to nail and hammer a few walls together and a solid floor.  The place became his throne, his own private sanctuary where he spent hours creating and learning a trade that slowly was becoming a dying Puerto Rican art.  His daughter never had any desire to learn the craft and now that Joselito showed interest; he was adamant about making sure to pass the art down to the boy.  Keep the culture alive, just as alive as the tradition of putting a box of grass under the bed to receive gifts from the Three Wise Kings during Christmas.  Santa Claus—bah!  Where do the gringos come up with ideas as silly as a fat man flying on a sled with reindeer and going down chimneys?  What chimney does a tenement building in New York City have?  He looked at the shelves, admiring his work that went more than fifty years of his life.   It was something he had learned from his own grandfather, an art that could be traced to the times of the conquistadores, an art form from old Spain.  He had been clumsy at first, something that angered his own grandfather, an artist with too little patience.  But soon he became an obsessed artist and he spent as much time with a knot of wood than with his carpenter tools, which were his means of support.  For hours, he would fall into a trance the second he hunched over the piece of wood.  He swore he heard the individual voices from the pieces of thick branches that fell from the mighty mango trees.  His grandfather had been a Santos maker, and because of that he taught him the designs and creations of saints, virgins and the Three Wise Kings.  Nevertheless, soon he was carving everything he could think of, and in no time everyone came to buy his work.  There were even a few places in New York that sold his wooden sculptures, and recently a magazine was selling his merchandise through mail orders.  Perhaps the old traditions were not completely dead after all.

The old man went back to his worktable, picked up the piece he was creating and brought it close to his eyes.   He already knew exactly how it was going to come out, like seeing the finished product before it was completed.  His grandfather once told him that an artist must first see the creation in his head, even before the first step is taken.  He took the unfinished piece and walked to the farthest wall across the room, pleased that with this piece, he would be able to complete the entire set he had been making for the past few months.  He removed a wooden box and placed the piece of wood inside, joining other finished pieces already sanded down and polished with clear varnish.  They were a gift for his daughter, something she had always wanted, but he had always been too busy, too selfish with his time to make.  He locked and put the box back, and when he turned around his daughter stood at the doorway.

Nena, you startled me,” he said walking towards her and kissing her forehead.  “You never learned to walk quietly; you must have been a cat in your other life.”

“Good morning, Papi.”  She touched him gently on his arm and accepted his kiss.  “You are always here.  Do you ever leave this room?”

“For what?  There’s not much to do in the other rooms of the house.  What am I supposed to do, go into the kitchen and burn the place down?”

“That’s true; I still remember when you tried to make soup for Mami.  You burned the pot, and all you were doing was boiling water.”

“Hey, like they say…the thought is what counts.”

“So what are you working on?” she asked as she walked around, picking up a thing here and there.  She stood in the middle of the room her eyes bouncing from shelf to shelf and then at the table that stood like its own island in the center of the ocean.  “I used to love this place when I was small.  It was so intriguing, like a special adventure that only I could see.  It always smells the same way, oily and fresh.  Like the forest after a nice afternoon rain.”

“Joselito seemed to inherit that from you.  He wants me to teach him how to carve.”

“And I bet you are going to.”

“Yes, the art and our culture should be passed from generation to generation.”

“I never learned to carve.”

“You never showed interest, and God knows that I tried.”

“I know, Papi; you did try.  I guess I was afraid of sharp knives and all the splinters from the wood.  Grandpa never learned either.  How come?”

“He was more interested in making houses than keeping a culture together.  I guess the culture seemed to skip one generation in between.”

“I see.  That’s why you’re going to make sure to teach Joselito everything you know about this lost culture.  Please Papi—don’t force him.  Besides, I’m not too fond of having him around all these knives and fumes.”

Nena, he’s a big boy already.  I began learning from my own grandfather at the same age.  I’m still here—I did not die from a knife stab or the fumes.”

“Okay, just be careful.  He could be clumsy sometimes.  I didn’t come all the way from New York just to see my son get a knife stuck in his eye.”

“You were always dramatic like your mother.  Nothing is going to happen to him.  I’ll make sure of that.  You never got hurt when you spent time here when you were a girl.”

“But I never held any of your knives.  I always kept my distance.”

Father and daughter stared at each other as if the last word that she said held more weight than just its simple meaning.

Joselito came running into the room, a black shoe box tucked under his arm.  “Abuelo how’s this box?  It was the biggest one I found,” he said excitedly, as he looked at his grandfather and then at his mother.  “Oh, hi Mom.”

“Joselito, you forgot to say ‘bendicion’ to your mother.”

Ay, Papi that’s old-fashioned stuff.  He doesn’t greet people like that.”

“Hija, what’s so old-fashioned about asking for your blessing?  I noticed you forgot that too.  Boy, New York really is not big on cultures.”

“This is not New York, Papi.  But we don’t live in the days when you were young and children were constantly punished for old habits and old maid’s fairy tales,” she tried to dismiss her father as she looked down at her son.  “Where did you get that box?”

Joselito looked from his mother to his grandfather, then at the box, and back at his mother.  “From your closet,” he finally mumbled.

“So it was you that woke me up.  Dios mio, it’s not even seven in the morning,” she complained looking at Joselito with stern sleep-swollen eyes.  “You know better than that, niño.  You know you are not supposed to be going through my things.”

“I’m sorry Mom, but Grandpa told me to get a strong shoe box.  I don’t have any boxes with my shoes.”

“So you decided to help yourself?  Without asking me if it was okay?”

“I’m the one to blame, Sara,” the old man intervened.  “He’s only a child.  I told him to get a box, I should have given him one instead.”

Papi, please, the boy has to learn that he cannot just take things that don’t belong to him.”

“But it is only a box,” the old man protested.  “Sara, the boy is sorry.  Why don’t we just drop it and forget about it?  Come on is Christmas, the time of love and forgiveness.”

Sara folded her arms across her chest and stared at her father.  She was the spitting image of his deceased wife, and that made the old man sad and happy that she was around, even if it was only for a short time.  Joselito stood between them, the box still held under his arm.  “Where did you put the shoes that were inside that box?” Sara looked down at her son.

“The box was empty; that’s why I didn’t wake you up.  I know how much you love to sleep.  I’m sorry Mom. I just wanted Grandpa to show me how you used to collect grass so you could get toys from some guys on camels that get really tiny and leave their camels outside eating grass out of shoe boxes,” Joselito rambled.

Sara giggled as she bent down and kissed her son.  “Your grandfather is going to make you as crazy as him.”

“Is it true that you used to mix the grass with oatmeal to get better gifts?” Joselito asked once again excited about the new tradition he was learning.

Sara glanced quickly at her father and back to her son.  “Oh, God…did he tell you that?  I guess he did.  But it was not to get better toys. I just felt sorry for those camels eating grass all night long.  I thought a little oatmeal was not going to hurt them.  Besides, maybe I was hoping to get a better gift because of my thoughtfulness.”  Sara laughed and winked at Joselito.  She looked at her dad and shook her head, her hair falling down to her forehead.  “Okay, I’ll leave you two on your crazy adventures.  It’s too early to be up especially when I’m supposed to be on vacation.  Wake me up around noon and we could have breakfast then.”  She started to walk out, but then turned and addressed Joselito.  “And you Mister, no more boxes, or anything from the closet…understood?”

They watched her go like two mischievous boys waiting to get into more trouble.  Joselito looked up at his grandfather and shrugged, and he in return slapped the boy playfully on the back of his head.  “Troublemaker,” Grandpa said, grinning behind his thin white mustache.  “Are you hungry?”

“Nah, I ate two cookies before.  I could wait until we come back and eat.  I just want you to take me to see that secret place.”

“Okay, let me get my cane.”  The old man walked around the worktable and grabbed a cane that he carved out of a tree limb.  It was adorned with carvings of horses and tiny stars.

They walked down the steps of the porch and into the grass still wet from the early-morning dew.  There was a chill in the air, the last reminder of the night as the sun began to climb above the mountains on the horizon.  The sky was still gray, like the vision of just awakened eyes, which soon become clear and bright.  A soothing wind brushed through their hair and became tangled in the branches and leaves from the trees that surrounded them.  Joselito observed a bird perched on the fence, its black eyes shiny and piercing.  Butterflies chased one other and bees buzzed into the nectars of flowers.  He smelled the freshness in the air, felt the serenity in the wind and there was no other place that he would rather be, but here in this beautiful paradise that he learned was named Puerto Rico.  It was the first time he had visited this island and there was no comparison to the dark, cold concrete world he was used to in New York.  He wanted to stay here forever, especially with the old man his mother introduced as his grandfather.  The first time they met he was surprised to see a man that did not resemble the typical grandfather from his friends back home.  His grandfather was tall and walked, like a soldier ready for battle.  He had a full head of white hair and a thin mustache that made him resemble an actor in the old black-and-white movies his mother loved to watch late at night.  He was smart and full of stories that to Joselito were better than reading a book.  It was a month already since they arrived from New York, and in that short time they had become closer than any friends he had in school.  His grandfather was the first adult he could trust in telling him anything he asked, and just by his easy way of talking, Joselito knew he always told the truth.  He followed Grandpa through the swinging gate that led to a narrow dirt path that twisted deep into the bushes and trees.  “What do you call this place, Grandpa?” Joselito asked still puzzled that there were no streets or parked cars anywhere.

“This part of the city is called el campo, the country.”

“Why don’t you live in the city where there are cars and lots of people?  Like the place where I live in New York.”

“It’s too loud and it does not let me concentrate on my work. Do you like New York?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Wouldn’t you rather live here in Puerto Rico, in a country where you don’t have to worry about cars or sirens of fire trucks or police cars during the night?”

“I don’t know.  All my friends are over there and so is my school.”

“You could make new friends in a new school here.”

“But I don’t know too much Spanish.  I like talking in English better.  I don’t have to think so much when I speak.”

“You’ll learn Spanish in the schools here.  In no time, you’ll be talking like a jibarito.”

“A jibarito?  What’s a jibarito?”

“It’s the name of the true Puerto Ricans, the country people.  The lived among the mountains and give richness and beauty to this island.”

“Are you a jibarito, Grandpa?”

“Yes, and very proud of it.”

“Am I one too?”

“Not until you learn to speak Spanish without that American accent, you americanito loco,” the old man said, laughing softly and winking at the boy.

“What’s an americanito loco?”

“That’s what you are now, a crazy little American.”

Joselito frowned at his grandfather and then giggled with delight.  He took his grandpa’s hand and walked alongside the old man as the sun began to warm the day with its rays of tropical sunshine.

“Where’s Grandma?” Joselito asked as they walked past a farm where cows pastured and lazy horses grazed out in a field.

The grandfather looked down a bit startled at the child’s question.  He bounced the question for a few seconds in his mind and came up with the only answer he could give him—the truth.  “She died a long time ago.”

“So she’s in Heaven with my father.”

The old man stopped and took a glance at the child, the morning sunrise painting the boy’s hair in reddish highlights.  “That’s what your mother told you?  That your father is in Heaven?”

“Yes.  I never met him.”

“Have you seen him in pictures?”

“No.  Do you have pictures of Grandma?”

“Yes.  I have many pictures of her.  I’ll show you them when we go back.  You’ll also going to see your mother when she was a baby and when she was your age.”

“Cool,” Joselito said as he let go of Grandpa’s hand and chased a large iguana that scurried quickly into the bushes.  He picked up a rock and threw it across the path hitting a mango tree and ricocheting into the bushes where the iguana escaped.  He laughed happily and returned to the side of the old man.  “This place is neat, Grandpa.  It’s like walking inside a giant zoo.”

“A giant zoo?  Americanito loco, come on we are almost there.  But just be careful there are a lot of twigs with sharp thorns that could rip right through your clothes and into your skin.  So you have to stay by my side.”

“Okay, Grandpa.”  He took the old man’s hand and followed him into what seemed to be a secret wall of trees that gave in the second his grandfather pushed them aside with his walking stick.

Joselito’s mouth opened wide in amazement.  It was like a magical fairyland that appeared in the middle of nowhere.  He stood paralyzed, staring with wild frozen eyes at the opening that spread over a green circle in front of him.  The grass, a golden yellow-green carpet, was evenly grown throughout the tiny valley as if it had been manicured with keen perfection.  Wild exotic flowers bloomed in bunches, each group emitting an exquisite fragrance.  Armies of butterflies in different colors somersaulted in delicate circles and from somewhere above the branches of nut-brown trees, birds serenaded with songs that elevated the ecstasies of the soul.  He stepped carefully, afraid that his clumsy steps would ruin the masterpiece of nature in front of him.  He followed his grandfather’s footsteps as his eyes took in the beauty, which grew lovelier as he walked deeper into its hold.  They sat down on a rock, smooth and cool to the touch.  It was a perfect rock, as if someone had placed it in the only spot where you felt part of the gorgeous scenery, and everything that the place had to offer was there within reach for your enjoyment.  Joselito stretched his neck and stared at everything, not wanting to miss the slightest details.  “Grandpa, this place is beautiful.  Wow, Grandpa, this place is cool.”

The old man chuckled, pleased that he could witness the enjoyment in his grandson’s eyes.  “You see over there,” he pointed with his walking stick at a stream that snaked right through the middle of the valley, the water making whispering sounds.  “At noon it seems that every dragonfly on the island gathers there to drink water.  And you see all these trees that surround you?  They are so thick and tall that if a siren were going off outside here, you would never hear it.  Not too many people know of this place.”

“How did you find this place?”

Grandpa glanced around, inhaling the essence of the magical special place.  “I didn’t find it, your grandmother did.  Whenever I was carving my saints and religious figures, she took long walks around the area, I guess to keep herself busy.  She would walk for miles and miles, and with every trip, she would bring back a tale about her walks.  She would tell me about the many animals she helped that she had found trapped by bushes or fallen trees.  She would bring the freshest fruits just ripe enough to be eaten, and their juices were the sweetest ever created for us humans to taste.  One day, she came to the house; her cheeks were red with life and her eyes with a glow that I had never seen in all the years that I was with her.  She made me stop my work, the first time ever she had demanded that I put the knife down, and she grabbed me with a strength I never knew she possessed.  And into this place she dragged me, and for the rest of my life, I love her for that.  She presented me with a piece of Heaven, right here in the middle of God’s country.  Yes, Joselito, it was your grandmother that showed me this place and whenever I need to be next to her, this is the place I come.  Because I know that she’s in every grass blade that grows towards the sun.  She’s in every flower that nourishes the bees, and she’s in every song that the birds sing.  Joselito, your grandmother is here, and she’s happy that finally she has met you.  Tell your abuelita, bendicion’

They could both smell the crisp bacon when they got near the house.  Joselito, stepping with joyful bounces, carried the shoe box like a well-earned trophy, and in the back pocket of his dungarees, he had stuffed a smooth round stick. The fresh-cut grass tingled his nose as it swayed from side to side inside the box, as if it was still planted in the ground, and was moving by the touch of the breeze.  With his grandfather’s arm around his shoulders, they both went inside as the aromas of breakfast created growls in their hungry stomachs and saliva in their mouths.

“Look Ma, look at the neat grass that Grandpa found for me!” Joselito ran to his mother, excited with his prized box filled with grass.  “Ma, he took me to a special place, and with this grass, the Three Wise Kings are going to give me a big surprise.”

“Okay Joselito, now wash those filthy hands and get ready for breakfast.”

“But Ma, wait, let me show you the grass.  I have never seen grass this color, and it smells great.  And look at this stick.  Grandpa is going to show me how to make something out of it.”

“Joselito, go and get ready for breakfast,” Sara ordered as she cracked an egg and dropped it in the hot-oiled frying pan.  It sizzled and popped as she added another one.  “I want you to eat and get ready because we are going to the city after.”

“To the city?” Joselito looked at his mother.  “I want to stay here.  Grandpa is going to teach me how to make things out of wood.”

“Joselito, for the last time put that dirty box down, clean up and come and have your breakfast.”

“But Ma, let me show you the grass.”

“Joselito!” Sara turned away from the stove and glared at her son.  “How many times do I have to tell you the same thing?”

Joselito lowered the shoe box and looked at his mother, then took a quick glance at Grandpa and left the kitchen, his steps no longer with the bounce that accented them before.

“It was not going to hurt you to just take one second and look inside the box,” Grandpa said as he pulled a chair and sat down noticing that the table was already set, and a covered plate stood in the middle.

“Papi, please, I cannot afford to spoil him.”  Sara scooped the fried eggs into a plate and started to fry two more.  “I appreciate what you are doing for him, all the time you are spending with him.  But please, I’m still his mother, and he must know that when I tell him to do something he has to do it.”

 

Pero, hija, he was going to do it.  All he wanted from you was to take a look at the grass.  This is something new for him, and he was very excited.  He wanted to share that happiness with you.”

 

Papi, don’t try to make me feel guilty.  The last thing I need now is to feel guilty about anything.”

 

“Okay, Sara, I just love that kid.  He’s a good boy, and he seemed to be very emotional.  Emotional little boys tend to bruise quicker, and the bruise stays longer before it goes away.”

 

“Is there any hidden meaning there, father?”

 

Ay, Dios,” Grandpa said as he lifted the covered plate on the table and peeked in.  It was the bacon, and it smelled better now.  “Can we for once be able to speak without walking on eggshells?”

 

Sara removed the fried eggs and turned the stove off.  She opened the oven and removed a loaf of bread wrapped in aluminum foil.  “Papi, like I told you before we came here, I was not looking for charity, and neither was I seeking advice.  All I wanted was a few days away from the hectic workload in New York.  There’s a lot on my mind; the last thing that I need is for us to be arguing about my duties as a mother.  I have raised that boy by myself for the last nine years, and I think I have done a damn good job, so please have faith that I’m going to continue doing it.”

 

“How come he thinks his father is dead?” Grandpa asked, knowing the question was a bit brusque, but nevertheless, he was still upset the child thought his father was dead when the bum was alive and well.

 

Sara glared at her father, feeling the question like a slap on the face.  She felt her anger rising, and suddenly she knew that the breakfast she was looking forward to eating was not going to taste as great as she had anticipated.

 

“I’m sorry to ask such a delicate question,” the old man continued.  Noticing the change in his daughter’s emotion, he wanted to rectify the situation.  “When Joselito asked me about your mother, and I told him that she was dead, he commented that she was in Heaven, just like his father.  It took me by surprise, all these years I always thought that he knew who his father was.  Don’t tell me that bum is not supporting that child.”

 

They heard the small steps of Joselito, and their conversation froze into a still dialogue.  Sara looked in the direction that Joselito entered the kitchen from, and she knew that at least for now the conversation was over.  And she didn’t know if that was the best thing to happen or not, but she knew that somewhere before the day was over the conversation would continue its drastic course.

 

He pulled a chair and sat next to his grandfather, his hands still moist and his eyes cast down, his eagerness and enthusiasm hidden and tucked away.  Sara saw him and her heart softened; she felt sad for her son as she walked up to him and kissed his moistened cheeks.  Her lips tasted his skin, and she knew that he had cried and that saddened her and made her feel cheap.  “I made your favorite breakfast—fried eggs, bacon nice and crispy the way you like it and toasted bread with lots of butter.  Do you want chocolate milk, or you want to start with orange juice?”

 

Joselito shrugged and stared at the plate that was now uncovered.  He saw the bacon strips and suddenly his stomach growled with a loud rumble that echoed through the quietness of the room.  All three burst out laughing, and when the laughter stopped it felt like a beautiful sunny day after two days of rain.  It felt fresh and clean.

 

In between the scraping of forks on the surface of plates, the clicks of cups against the stirring of spoons and the occasional slurp of Joselito drinking his cold chocolate milk, they chatted about little things that grew into long conversation and plans for days to come.  “We could have some lunch in the city, Joselito,” Sara suggested as she crunched a piece of bacon between her teeth.  “That way I could show you the school I went to when I was a little girl.”

 

“Is Grandpa coming with us?” Joselito asked, munching on a piece of bread as the melted butter smeared part of his left cheek.

 

“If he wants too,” Sara glanced at her father with a silent invitation.

 

“Grandpa, do you want to come with us?” Joselito wiped his mouth with a napkin already coming apart.

 

“All I’m going to do is slow you down.  I’ll stay here and when you come back I’ll teach you how to make a saint.”

 

“Please Grandpa, we don’t have to run around, we could walk slow.”

 

Grandpa smiled, took his grandson’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.  “I’ll tell you what…go to the city with your mother and when you come back I’ll have a surprise for you.”

 

“A surprise!” Joselito’s mouth opened wide with excitement.  “What surprise?”

 

“If I tell you, then it’s not going to be a surprise.”

 

“Come on, you could give me a hint, please.”

 

“The only hint I’m going to give you is that you’re going to be surprised.  Now no more questions or you won’t get the surprise.”

 

Joselito giggled, finished his milk and jumped out of his seat.  “Come on Ma I’m finished.  Let’s go to the city, so we can come back soon.”

 

“Wait a minute, young man.  First let’s clean up here, and you have to change your clothes.  You are not going to the city looking like a pordiosero,” Sara pushed the chair away from the table and began collecting the dirty dishes.

 

“What’s pordiosero, Ma?”

 

“A dirty smelly beggar boy,” she said, and she laughed feeling happy and ready to let the Christmas spirit elevate her.  She wanted to go to the city to buy some gifts for Joselito and her father.  Tomorrow morning there would be great presents underneath their beds.  Yes, she felt exhilarated, and tomorrow morning she couldn’t wait to shout ‘Los Reyes vinieron’, the Three Wise Kings arrived!

 

 

-2-

 

 

Sara parked the rental car and stared out the window.  The city of her childhood spread out in front of her like an embrace of an old friend.  It was as if time stood still and never bothered to move toward the future.  The small town appeared just like she remembered from her childhood days, small, humble, and so much a part of her soul.  The narrow sidewalks overfilled with shoppers greeting each other with hugs and kisses and good wishes.  There were kids glued to the toy store windows; in their eyes, the anticipation of what toys they might find underneath their bed in exchange for battered shoe boxes filled with grass.  She looked passionately at mothers carrying grocery bags for dinners to be shared by family gatherings in the coming festive night.  She watched with interest at the fathers, hard laborers all year long, which now roamed the streets in their finest clothes with smiles of the joy that the holiday season brought.  Today was the Three Wise Kings Eve and everyone returned to a childhood that never left, but just shied away until it was time to acknowledge the beauty, the serenity and the magic of Christmas once again.

 

She opened the car door and slid out, then went around the car to the other side to help Joselito with his seatbelt.  He stepped out, and she could see the thrill in his eyes.  Everything he was seeing was a new experience for him, and through his eyes, she saw how beautiful life could be.  She took his small hand into hers and led him onto the sidewalk as she looked around wondering if anyone recognized her from the days she called this town her own.  How many years passed?   Fifteen, twenty, did it matter?  Sometimes it was better not to let time put a stamp on memories, and just be able to see years as mere seconds of a lifetime.  She walked slowly, accepting the old familiar smells of her past, feeling the pangs of nostalgia tugging at her heart, and she wondered if it was possible to go back to the old traditions again.  Was it feasible, to recapture times that you tried to ignore, tried to erase from a mental bank that always refused to do what you commanded to forget?  She stopped in front of the church; the old Roman Catholic Church built during the days when conquistadores ruled the island, and the plaza around it looked much smaller now than what it did back when she was a child.  Many festivals she had attended there, with her parents.  There were many times they walked down the steps of the church after the Sunday service, staying in front and greeting and chatting with old friends, while young lovers respectfully stared into each others’ eyes.  She crossed the street and stepped into the plaza, and the people around her ran by shouting at others, laughing out loud.  Somewhere a tipsy well-dressed man gave a dollar to a kid who just happened to walk by him.  He shouted to the kid that the Kings had arrived early today, and then laughed with that typical laugh of a man who was on his way into an early drunken night.  She squeezed Joselito’s hand and climbed the steps to the church.  “This is the church where I did my First Communion.  It’s one of the oldest churches on the island.  It’s the most beautiful church in the entire world.”

 

Sara swung the door open and entered, and the sudden darkness of the cathedral embraced her and removed years from her.  The aroma of candles smothered her as her eyes adjusted to the dimness of the cavernous holy place.  There were people scattered around the wooden pews; some prayed in soft whispers while others chatted in murmured tones.  Joselito held her hand tight.  She could see he was beside himself, and she lowered herself to kiss him.  She led him into a pew and both mother and child knelt, and she made the sign of the cross.  She felt Joselito fidget a bit, and she wanted to tell him to stop, but caught herself, realizing that it was normal for his behavior.  So much was coming at him, and she had to remind herself that he was only nine years old, and a little fidgeting was understandable.  She sat down and pulled him into her, and his body felt small, vulnerable, and she knew that if she lived up to a million years, she would never find a stronger love than the love she had for her little boy.  She put her arm around his shoulders and brought him closer to her, and she swore that at that moment, she could actually hear his heart beating with joy.

 

“Ma,” Joselito whispered in Sara’s ear.  “This place is spooky.  Is this a haunted house?”

 

Sara placed her hand over her mouth and giggled.  “No silly boy, this is a church.  This is the house of God.  This place is where you come to be surrounded by love and to thank God for taking care of you.”  She kissed him again, and she realized that this was the first time he been inside a church since the day he was baptized.  She was not a religious person, and she hated herself that all these years she never bothered to take him to learn about the religion, she was a part of.  She promised herself that this also was going to change.  The second she was settled with her life, the first thing she was going to do was enroll him into Catholic teachings so by next year he could do his First Communion.

 

“Ready to do some shopping?” Sara brushed Joselito’s hair from his forehead.  “And after that I’m going to treat you to the best Puerto Rican lunch in the world.  Wait until you taste a tamarindo drink.”

 

“What’s tamarindo?”

 

“It’s a tropical fruit that tastes like nothing you would ever taste in your life.”

 

“And if I don’t like it, can I have a Pepsi instead?”

 

“Not only are you going to like it, you are going to ask for seconds.  Now come on before everyone buys all the good stuff from the stores.”

 

It was noon when they came out of the church.  The plaza was busy and the festivity in the air was as strong and bright as the sun above.  “Okay, here’s the plan,” Sara moistened her lips and shielded her eyes with her hand from the glare.  “Let’s get a nice present for Grandpa.  What do you think he would like?”

 

“A present for Grandpa?”

 

“Yes, silly.  A present for the Three Wise King’s Day.”

 

“But I thought all you need to do is leave a box with grass to get presents from them.”

 

“Only if you are a child.  When you grow up the Kings expect you to help them in giving gifts to other grownups, while they concentrate on the kids.”

 

Joselito frowned at his mother; his face twisted in confusion.  “So only the kids get gifts from them?”

 

“Yes.  How it goes is that when baby Jesus was born, the Three Wise Kings followed this bright star in the desert where they knew a king was born.  And that king was baby Jesus.  When they arrived at the stable, they brought with them gifts for the baby.  Because of that, every year all kids receive a gift from the Kings and in a gesture to give thanks, the children leave grass for the Kings’ camels, for their journey is a long one on that night.”

 

“Why didn’t the Kings ever go to our house in New York?”

 

Sara bit her lips and then smiled at her son.  Sometimes having a smart boy was not a good thing, especially when traditions like this were supposed to be kept.  “Well, because the Kings travel from a very warm place and going to a cold place would harm the camels.  That’s why Santa Claus helps them in places like New York.  That’s the beauty about Christmas, everybody tries to help everybody in their own private way.”

 

Joselito nodded, digesting that story.  He looked around at the many packages that he saw people carrying, and he saw the other kids his age running about, some with boxes filled with grass.  He smiled and took his mother’s hand, convinced that this Christmas was going to be some special year.  He was going to get his first visit from the Three Wise Kings, and he was happy that Santa Claus found him here in Puerto Rico.  “Ma, how come Santa Claus was able to find me here if this is not the place he comes?”

 

Sara was startled by the question, and it took a lot for her not to laugh out loud, for his intelligence and his analytical mind was something that she knew was a gift.  He inherited that from her father.  “Well Santa already knew that you sent him a letter, so he made a special trip just in case the Three Wise Kings didn’t know you were here.”

 

Joselito rolled that answer in his mind, and before he could ask another question, from across the street, a man shouted his mother’s name.  He quickly looked at his mom and in her eyes, he saw something he had never seen before.  It was a look of surprise and excitement at the same time.

 

The man crossed the street in hurried steps.  He wrapped his big arms around his mother and held her in a bear hug, laughing and talking in a fast Spanish that was lost in Joselito’s limited knowledge of the language.  He saw his mother laugh, her cheeks redden and her eyes looked around her as if she was embarrassed that someone recognized her.  The man let her go, but held on to her hand as if they were about to dance.  Joselito stared at the man, wondering who he was, and also wondering why he felt a sudden dislike for the man.  He didn’t like anybody hugging his mother like that.

 

Dios mio, how are you, Sara?” the man almost shouted.  He glanced down and smiled with a big friendly smile at Joselito.  “And who is this handsome boy?  Don’t tell me…your son.”

 

Hola Daniel, what a surprise to see you.  And yes, this is my son Joselito.”

 

“Are you crazy, the surprise is mine!” Daniel shook his head as he lowered his body to be on Joselito’s level.  “Hola, my name is Daniel.  I’m an old-school friend of your mother.”  Daniel stretched his hand and shook the boy’s hand gently.  He stood up and looked at Sara again, his smile never faltering.  “How long have you been in town?”

 

“A little less than four weeks; I came for the holidays.  It has been a long time since I’ve been in Puerto Rico and I felt that it was way overdue.”

 

“How long has it been?”

 

“Oh no, by telling you how many years I’ll be telling you my age.  And that wouldn’t be very ladylike.”

 

Joselito heard his mother laugh, and it was a laugh he had never heard before.  It was melodic and to his ears, it didn’t sound real.  He wanted for this man to go away.  He was happy just spending the time with his mother, and now he saw the appearance of this loud smiling man as an intrusion.  He took a long look at the stores across the church plaza, and suddenly he feared that the gift they were going to buy for Grandpa and the lunch they were supposed to have disappeared the second Daniel arrived.  The three of them started walking and Joselito held on to his mother’s arm, staring down at the sidewalk, wishing for the man to leave.  He could hear the conversation between his mother and Daniel, and the words came to him in fast alien fashion.  It was as if they were conversing in a different tongue.  They stopped in front of a clothing store, and Joselito peeked inside.  The store was packed with people, and the last thing that he wanted to do was to go inside that mad house.  But to his dismay, inside the store they went.  And Daniel was right behind them like a self-appointed guard.

 

From store to store they went, battling the crowds in their last-minute shopping.  Sara bought two shirts and a pair of moccasins, which she hoped her father would wear when he was relaxing in the evening.  It was hard for her to buy Joselito’s gift, and wondering how she was going to do it, she browsed around other stores and peeked at the window displays.  She knew that a toy store was across the street, and from where she stood she could see there was a line of people in the front trying to get in.  Joselito was holding on to her, and she knew there was no way he was going to leave her side for a second.  Daniel had been a surprise, and she was glad that they had met.  After all those years, he still looked the same.  They were good friends through all their school years.  It was a friendship that never escalated into anything, but a very close friendship.  She could sense Joselito’s apprehension around Daniel, and she knew it was a normal reaction for him to be like that.  He was not used to having a strange man around them and Daniel, with his baritone voice and easy laughter, was probably keeping her son at bay.  They walked away from the stores, and Sara saw a few feet from them the elementary school that she had attended. Pulling Joselito, she almost ran to the school.  “Oh my God,” she was laughing now, looking up at the small old building that she found so huge when she was a child.  Now it was no bigger than a little townhouse.  “Joselito, this was the school I went to, from kindergarten through sixth grade.  Wow, the place has not changed one bit.”

 

“That’s where I met your mom,” Daniel knelt down in front of the boy.  “She pushed me out of the way just to get a seat on the bus.”

 

“I did not!” Sara protested as she shook her head, laughing.  “I can’t help it if you were scared to get on the bus, and besides it was raining, and I had new shoes.”

 

Joselito stared at the school and wondered if this school was the same as his school was back in New York.  But one thing he noticed, it was much smaller than the school he went to.  There was not even a schoolyard where the little kids could play.

 

“Remember when the bats used to come out during the day?” Sara tilted her head and pretended she was swatting invisible bats.

 

“Bats?” Joselito threw a puzzled look.

 

“Yes, bats.  Every so often they used to come out and fly all over, especially around the area where all the students had to line up to go inside the lunch room.”

 

“That was hilarious; everyone used to start running and yelling like maniacs.  But if you were smart you used to stay put and when the bats flew away, instead of being on the back of the line, you ended up right in front,” Daniel recollected, with his lips stretched into a huge smile.

 

“Remember those lunches?” Sara stuck her tongue out and pretended she was throwing up, making Joselito laugh as he mimicked his mother.  “You had to be starved for days in order to eat that junk they used to serve.”

 

“Come on, it was not that bad,” Daniel defended his old alma mater.

 

“Not so bad?  Are you insane?  Listen to this Joselito. They used to give you these mountains of rice drowned in this thick white gravy with fava beans.  And to push that slop down, they poured this warm milk mixed with peanut butter.  When you drank that concoction, it was like swallowing big lumps of something that was not supposed to be in a child’s mouth.”

 

“Come on, don’t be so cruel.  I personally liked the stuff.  As a matter of fact, once in a while I prepared my milk like that.  It’s delicious, Joselito, don’t believe your mother.  I’ll make you a glass one day.”

 

“Peanut butter and milk?” Joselito twisted his face with revulsion.  “Yucky.”

 

“You see, Sara, what you have done?  You are making the boy think that schools in Puerto Rico are worse than a concentration camp.”

 

Sara was laughing now.  “Concentration camp?  It was worse, Joselito.  They used to have the meanest teacher at the exit of the lunchroom to make sure that you ate everything on your tray.  If not, even if there was just one bloated disgusted fava bean still drowning in that awful smelling beige gravy, they used to make you go back to your seat and choke on that stuff.”

 

Daniel shook his head from side to side.  “You are really exaggerating the truth.  Those were the best lunches I ate in my life.  Let’s not forget the warm prunes we were given as dessert. Mmmmmm, now that was delicious stuff.”

 

“Oh Jesus, it was like looking at a plate of dead water bugs!” Sara exclaimed as she shook her body squeamishly.

 

“You know, talking about all those great dishes makes me hungry.  How about a bite to eat before we continue shopping?”  Daniel said as he pointed at a place across from the school.  “We could go there, remember that place?”

 

Sara looked and nodded with glee.  “Do they still make the best alcapurrias in the island?”

 

“Still the best, and the rellenos de papa just melt in your mouth.” Daniel smacked his lips and rubbed his stomach.

 

“What is alcapurrias and rellenos de papa, Ma?” Joselito asked as he crossed the street holding on to his mother, while Daniel followed them with the packages.

 

“You’ll see, Joselito.  Wait until we are sitting down with those tasty things on our plate, and I’ll explain to you what they are.  You have to see them and taste them before I could tell you what they are.”

 

They climbed three steps to the outdoor cafe.  A large countertop ran straight to the corner of the building.  Behind the counter were huge skillets and women cooking various dishes of fried food and huge pots of rice with meats and potatoes.  The aromas were rich, spicy and just the thought of how the food would taste made their mouths water.  They sat on stools bolted along the counter, and a man with a thick mustache and a quick smile came to them at once.  “Welcome, how can I help you?”

 

“You could help us by feeding us, especially this little boy from America.  He has never tasted the best food in the whole world,” Daniel said as he swung his leg over the stool and carefully placed the packages on the floor.  “Give us a platter of alcapurrias, rellenos de papa, bacalaitos, pastelillos, and two pasteles.  He turned towards Sara.  “Anything more?  What about to drink?”

 

“My God, when was the last time you ate?  You just ordered food for the whole town,” Sara said as she inhaled the salivating smells coming all around her.  “We’ll have two tamarindo drinks.  I promised Joselito that he is going to fall in love with tamarindo.”

 

“Ma,” Joselito raised his hand.  “If I don’t like it, you said I could have a Pepsi.”

 

“Sure, but don’t worry, you’ll love the stuff.”

 

Daniel looked at Joselito and smiled and the boy nodded, yet wished for the man to leave.  Didn’t he have a place to go, Joselito wanted to ask.  Didn’t he have a family that was waiting for him to eat lunch with or to get ready for the Three Wise Kings?  Joselito had noticed that Daniel had also purchased some clothes, and he wondered if some of the lady clothes he had bought were for his wife.  The man behind the counter came back and placed two large platters before them.  One platter was filled with golden-brown fried food that to Joselito resembled tiny footballs and badly shaped softballs.  On the other platter, there were small crispy things and two large flaky foods that looked like hand-held fans.  The food sent out an aroma that made his stomach shift hungrily with anticipation.  Another smaller platter was placed, and this one was something that came wrapped in leaves.  Joselito stared at the food, having no idea what it was and wishing that they had gone to a place more familiar, like a McDonalds.  At least, he would have been able to order a Happy Meal, or just a cheeseburger with fries and a cold frosty milkshake.  The waiter came back with napkins, plastic folks and paper plates, and with three cups of the drink, his mother called tamarindo.  The first bite that he took was spicy and delicious.  It exploded in his mouth awakening his taste buds and filling his stomach with richness.  “Ma, what is this?” Joselito asked in English, not wanting to include Daniel in his conversation.

 

“It’s called rellenos de papa, and it’s made with potatoes and filled with meat.  And Joselito, please speak in Spanish—it’s not polite to talk in English when there are people that do not understand.”

 

He felt his face turn hot and red, and he hated his mother at that moment for scolding him in front of a strange man whom he didn’t even like.

 

Daniel began to fill his plate with one of the things that came wrapped in leaves.  Smoke billowed, and Daniel carefully opened the leaf and revealed something that to the boy looked smooth, soft and brown.  “You wanted to taste this?” Daniel asked when he noticed how Joselito was staring at what he was doing.  The boy shook his head and took another bite of his roundish meat-filled potato. Joselito was curious about what Daniel was eating, but he decided to wait until he and his mother were by themselves before he started asking her more questions.

 

“Do you like baseball?” Daniel asked Joselito, the stuff that came on the leaf almost gone.  Apparently, the man was hungrier than anyone was.

 

“Yes,” Joselito answered shyly, hoping that with that swift answer, Daniel would go back to eat his leaf-wrapped lunch.

 

“I used to play for the Yankees. Maybe if you stay around for long enough I could teach you how to become a good player.”

 

“For the Yankees?” Joselito was now intrigued.  He knew who the Yankees were.  Everyone in school was a Yankees fan except for some kids who were Mets fans.  He looked at Daniel closer, trying to figure out if what the man was telling was what his mother often called a little white lie.

 

“Yes, almost ten years ago.  I was able to play for about twenty games in Yankee Stadium, but I hurt my knee and there went my career.” Daniel pointed at his right knee and made a popping sound with his mouth.

 

“What happened to your knee?” Joselito became more interested in what Daniel was saying, as he took a bite of the food that looked like small footballs. It was crunchy and tasty, and he licked his lips while a bit of grease ran down the side of his mouth.

 

“I slid into third base the wrong way.  I broke my knee in two places, and after that I couldn’t play again.  Do you like the Yankees?”

 

Joselito nodded as he took a sip of the drink his mother ordered, and then put the cup down and wrinkled his nose.  “Ma, is this drink you were telling me about?”

 

“Yes.”  Sara smiled at him while she dabbed her lips with a napkin.  “How do you like it?  It’s great…right?”

 

“Can I have a Pepsi instead?”

 

She started to laugh, shaking her head and waving at the man behind the counter.  “I guess you’re not a true jibarito, yet.”

 

Daniel called the man back and ordered the soda.  “Don’t worry Sara, give him another month here, and he is going to be drinking this stuff like water.  How do you like the alcapurria?”

 

Joselito frowned until he figured out that what he was eating was called that funny name, alcapurria.  He couldn’t say it well.  Spanish words with double R’s were the hardest words to pronounce.  He tried to say the word, and both his mother and Daniel laughed.

 

“You have to roll your tongue—alcapurrrrrria,” Sara made the sound of R’s in unison.  “That’s how you say it, and that’s grated green bananas filled also with meat.  Do you like that?”

 

Joselito gave the thumbs-up sign and wiped his mouth, then took a long sip from the soda can.  The cold drink was refreshing, and the carbonated fizzle tickled his nose.  “What’s that?” He couldn’t hold back his inquisitiveness anymore, as he pointed at the wrapped leaf.

 

Sara put one on her plate and began to open the leaf.  She then cut it in half and shared it with Joselito.  “This is called pasteles, and to tell you what it is will be almost impossible.  Just trust me, you’re going to love it; see it as a meat pie.”

 

Joselito stared at the meat pie, catching the spicy smell that rose from his plate.  He picked a small piece with the folk and put it gently into his mouth.  It just melted in his mouth, and the taste was one of the most incredible things he had ever eaten.  Definitely, this lunch was better than a plain cheeseburger with soggy fries.  Now, with his belly full, the boy slid down from the stool and with his mother’s permission walked a few feet away from them where a man was selling toys.

 

“You have a great son there,” Daniel admired Joselito, who now squatted down taking a closer look at the toys.

 

Sara waved at her son and smiled at her childhood friend.  “Thank you.  He could be a handful at times, but overall he’s a pretty happy boy.  What about you?”

 

“What about me?” Daniel picked on a crumb from the finished plates still in front of them.

 

“Yeah, what about you? What’s your story?  Any Danielitos running around somewhere picking up grass for the Kings’ camels?”

 

“I hope not, the last thing I need is a surprise like that.  I guess I was never the marrying type.  After all, who wants to touch a person that was too selfish about his career, running around in different jobs in minor-league baseball camps?”

 

“You’ll never know. Besides you’d better hurry up and get hitched with someone.  Remember, old maids could also be applied to men.”

 

“Hey, what can I tell you?  I’m a very picky man.”

 

“Well usually picky men tend to pick a great lonely spot to be by themselves.”

 

Daniel smiled and took another piece of fried crumb from the plates.

 

“Are you still hungry?”

 

“Not really, it’s just a bad habit that I can’t get rid of.  I love to pick on nicely burnt crispy crumbs after I’ve finished eating.  I should have them remove the plates before I make myself sick.  Are you staying for long?”  Daniel asked as he motioned to the counterman that they were finished, and to bring the check.

 

“For about two more days.  Joselito should have been in school almost two weeks ago, but I figured a few days that he missed is not going to hurt his chances of going to college.  It has been a blessing to escape from the rush-rush of New York.  Besides, I wanted my father to meet his grandson.”

 

Daniel nodded as he accepted the check from the waiter.  He glanced at the amount and quickly peeled a few bills from his wallet and paid the waiting man.  “How’s your father anyway, we don’t see him much these days.  He practically stays out there all year long.  But the work he’s been doing is the finest art that anyone has ever seen.  I bet he’s making a bundle.  I just heard a mail order magazine is selling a lot of his work.  He has become the Michelangelo of Puerto Rican wood carving.”

 

“He was always dedicated to his work.  His passion became an obsession.”  Sara commented as she looked past Daniel and watched her son talking to the toy vendor.  The merchant was smiling with the type of genuine adult smile that comes when a kid amazes them with their wit and sweet innocence.  Her son had the makings of a politician, always working the room.  She lifted her head and took a long look at the blue sky, where huge puffy clouds roamed in slow mesmerizing pace.  It was a glorious sky, and she wondered if this was the same sky that blanketed the gray world of New York.

 

“You look lost in your thoughts,” Daniel noticed as he swung his legs around the stool and rested his back against the counter.  The open-aired diner was practically empty; it seemed everyone in town was too busy shopping to take time to eat.

 

“Just realizing how beautiful the Puerto Rican sky is.  Damn, it was a long time that I kept away from here.  I can’t let that happen again.”  She brushed her hair back as a breeze cooled her brow.  “Did you finish your shopping?”

 

“Yes, I’m all done.  When your list consists of only two names, you don’t have to waste too much time inside those mad houses out there.”

 

“I noticed both items are for ladies,”

 

“My mother and my sister,” Daniel replied, taking a quick glance at Sara and realizing that after some years, she was still a beautiful woman.

 

“No nephews or nieces?”

 

“As a matter of fact, two, but my mother usually get them something and put my name on the card.  I generally give them a couple of dollars to sweeten the gift.  What about you, are you finished?”

 

“Just about.  I need to get something for Joselito, something that he could find underneath the bed.  He’s really excited about the Three Wise Kings.  It’s something new for him and I want to make it an enjoyable memory.”

 

“Anything in particular?”

 

“Not really.  I bought a few T-shirts, but I know like any other kid he wants toys.”

 

Daniel nodded and cracked his knuckles.  “What are you doing later?”

 

“Not much, I guess to relax and enjoy the night.  My father is planning on giving Joselito a few lessons in the art of wood carving.”

 

“Well, if you want I could pick you up later on, and we could spend a few hours celebrating.  I’ve been invited to a few parties in town; you’ll get to meet a lot of people from the old days.  They’ll be surprised to see you.”

 

“Thanks, but I think it would be appropriate if I stay put and pass a nice quiet evening at home.”

 

Daniel sighed, his eyes losing the sparkles that they had since he met Sara.  A group of people went by, and he waved at them as they entered a store.  “That was Isabel and her family.  Remember her from school?”

 

“How can I forget?  She had a mighty crush on you ever since kindergarten.”

 

“Come on,” Daniel laughed as he shifted his body to face Sara.  “She was just boy crazy all her life.”

 

“And what’s her story now?”

 

“She’s been married more times than Elizabeth Taylor.  She’s stuck with a tribe of kids and a miserable life.  The poor woman, once in a while she tries to come on to me, but I do my best to keep my distance.  The last thing I want is a huge family like that.”

 

“Hey, you could have your own baseball team,” Sara chuckled, and waved at Joselito who was now kneeling down and taking a closer inspection of the vendor’s wares.  “It’s a shame I didn’t meet you before.  I would have loved to chat more about the good old days.”

 

“Why don’t you delay your return to New York by one more day?  I’m sure your father would not mind the extra time to teach his grandson his art.”

 

Sara puckered her lips and shook her head undecidedly.  “I don’t know; I can’t promise you anything.”

 

“I guess that’s a better answer than a definite no,” Daniel smiled, the sparkles in his eyes returning.

 

Sara studied Daniel, and she wondered why they never pursued something deeper back then than just a friendship.  Joselito was coming over, his steps hopping with amusement and happiness.  “I need a big favor,” she spoke fast, wanting to say it before Joselito was by her side.  “How can I buy Joselito a toy without his knowing?  Any suggestions?”

 

Daniel took a quick glimpse at the approaching boy.  “I could keep him busy while you go to the toy store.”

 

“God, but look at that line to just go inside.  I’ll be there for at least the entire day.”

 

“If you know what he wants I could always buy it for you, and I’ll drop it off tonight.  I’ll play the role of the Kings; he’ll have it by the time he wakes up.”

 

“I can’t burden you with that, you have parties to attend.”

 

“It’s not a burden, trust me.  It will take me a second; one of the parties is not far from your home.  It’s the least I could do, and besides, it would give me an excuse to play with toys.  So come on before he gets here, what does he like?”

 

“Oh, Jesus, I don’t know.  He loves cars and trucks.”

 

“Just leave it to me, I promise I won’t let you down.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“Sure, all I have to do is pretend I’m buying it for me.”

 

“A kid at heart, huh?”

 

“The kid never leaves my side.”

 

“Thanks, Daniel.  In that case let me give you some money.”

 

“Give me the money later and don’t worry I’m not a big spender.”

 

“OK, but make sure it’s something he’s going to love. You could spend at least fifty dollars.”

 

“Wow, can you be my mother?” Daniel said, and both burst out laughing.

 

Joselito was now standing by their side, his face shiny with sweat.  He looked at them in puzzlement.  “Mom, it’s really hot in here,” he said, fanning himself and licking his lips.  Sara passed her fingers through his hair and wiped his forehead with a clean napkin.

 

“We are leaving now.” Sara stood up.  “Did you see anything over there that you would like the Three Wise Kings to bring you?”

 

Joselito took a quick glance in the direction of the vendor, and a smile curled his thin lips.  “Are you sure that they are really going to bring me something?”

 

“I’m pretty sure; you already have your box filled with grass under the bed.”

 

“But how do they know that a little kid lives in Grandpa’s house?”

 

“Because silly boy, they know everything.  That’s why they are wise.”

 

He clapped his hands as a grin revealed a dimple on his left cheek.  “I’ll show you, come on,” he pulled her arm.

 

They followed Joselito to where the toy vendor stood.  There were dolls and shiny trucks, big army guns and cowboy six-shooters.  There were an Indian bow and arrow set, and a clear box with colorful plastic tools.  There were battery operated robots with red beaming eyes and beep-beep sounds, wind-up toys of dogs that went around in circles, and metal horses that galloped in some unseen western town.  There were stuffed animals and board games; the vendor was a walking toy store.  Joselito motioned for his mother to come down to him, and when she did he whispered to her.  He pointed to a big shiny yellow Tonka truck.  Sara winked at Daniel, and he winked back.

 

 

-3-

 

 

The old man was two months shy of turning seventy-one years old, but his hands were still nimble, steady and strong.  There were no visible signs of knotted knuckles twisted by arthritis.  He held the sharp knife on an angle and with smooth, even strokes, he shaved the wood.  The scent of cedar pleased his nostrils, and he whistled while he created.  This was the time that he heard the voices of nature’s souls.  He rarely spoke about such voices, but he imagined that if he spoke to any other artist, like writers, painters, and composers, he knew that they all shared the same gift.  The small piece of lumber was beginning to take shape as he meticulously added fine details, giving the object life and coming closer to revealing its soul.  He heard the car approaching, sounds of twigs snapping at the weight of tires and the constant rippling of pebbles hitting the chassis of the car.  He quickly took the unfinished camel and placed it inside the wooden box, which sat on the second shelf, which was littered with other half done pieces that he planned to return to someday.  He had started to put unfinished work on that particular side of the room; it was the side that faced the path to the secret place of his wife.  It was his own private way of sharing his work, his progress with her.  He knew that she was pleased with what he was keeping inside the box; it was a gift for Sara.

 

The front door screeched thinly as the hinges swung the massive carved door.  It had taken him two years to finish the door, and it was one of the works that he was most proud of.  It was a replica of his wife’s special place.  He heard the click-clack of Sara’s heels echoing through the house, which were followed by the soft thumps of Joselito’s sneakers.  He met them in the corridor that led to every room in the house.  Sara’s face was red and flustered, and her arms were hidden by packages.  Joselito carried a smaller bag, and his face was also red, like the shell of a lobster after being submerged in boiling water.  Their skin was still too soft to challenge the strong tropical sun.  If they spent another month on the island, their redness would turn to a healthy shade of light brown.

 

Nena, what did you do?  Buy everything in the stores?  I bet they all fell in love with you.”

 

Sara plopped on the living room couch and scattered the packages all around her.  She looked like the perfect picture of a holiday commercial.  Joselito placed the bag he was holding next to his mother and ran to his grandfather.  His face was alive and full of all the new experiences in life.  The joy in a child’s eyes is living proof of the greatness of God.

 

“Grandpa, I saw the school where mom went to.”  He embraced the old man who had knelt down to receive him and kissed him on the cheek.  “It was fun going to the city.  I saw a man selling toys, and you know what?  I told mom what I want the Three Wise Kings to bring me.  A big yellow truck.”

 

The old man wanted to lift the boy up, but ruled it out as a dangerous thing to do, so instead he hugged him as tight as he could.  At that moment, he wished he had been around his grandson since the day he was born.  Foolishness of people from the past always comes to bite you right there where it hurts the most, right in the heart.

 

“Grandpa, do you think I should put oatmeal in the grass?”

 

“Are you going to bribe the Kings like your mom?”

 

Joselito giggled and looked at his mother, then laughed much harder from the tickles of his grandfather.

 

“So how did you find the town?” Grandpa asked Sara as he sat in a chair across from her.  Joselito sat halfway on his lap.

 

“It still looked the same.  It was like stepping back in time.  I met Daniel.  He was also doing some shopping.  He was nice enough to buy us lunch, and he filled me on what’s been happening since I left.”

 

The old man’s face crunched into a sea of disgust.  “He’s still mooching off his mother?  That man thinks that life is all a big baseball game.”

 

Sara leaned her head back against the headrest of the sofa and closed her eyes.  “Things never change Papi.  When are you going to let up on Daniel?”

 

“Hija, sorry, but of all your friends, he was the one I knew was going to end up as a bum.”

 

Ay, Papi, por favor.  At least, he made it to play with the New York Yankees.  It was not his fault that he injured his knee.”

 

The old man laughed sarcastically, shaking his head.  “So now it’s the Yankees? When he came back from America, it was the Pirates, the team he supposedly played for, and instead of the knee, it was a broken leg.  That man is full of more stories than a library.”

 

Sara shifted on the couch and stared at her father.  After all these years, he hadn’t changed one bit.  Always critical of everyone but himself.  “Well, regardless of the discrepancy in the story, he was very charming with Joselito, and it was sweet that he bought us lunch.  I think that was very generous.”

 

“Hey, anyone could be a big spender with other people’s money.  He lives with his mother, doesn’t have a job and the money he keeps in his pocket is his mother’s Social Security check.  The man is a bum.”

 

Sara rolled her eyes as she pressed her lips hard against her teeth.  “You know Dad, sometimes what you think is happening in someone’s home is usually the opposite.  Have you ever been inside Daniel’s house to know everything?  For someone who lives secluded and refuses to even go to town, you sure know a lot of what’s going on.  How’s that possible?  Does the person that caters to all your needs also moonlight as your own gossiper?  Or do you have a crystal ball hidden in your workroom?  You shouldn’t believe the malicious gossips from jealous people.”

 

“Jealous people?  Who could be jealous of Daniel?  Why do you think a man his age still lives with his mother, without settling down with a good woman?  I’ll tell you why.  No decent woman that wants a decent future would give him the time of day.”

 

“You know Dad; I don’t think you should be talking in that derogatory manner in front of Joselito.  He’s only a child with a very impressionable mind, and he did have a good time with Daniel.”

 

Grandpa looked down at the boy, who was standing in the middle of their outburst.  The child divided his glances from mother to grandfather, and then dropped his eyes to the floor.  It occurred to both that whatever magic the boy had seen in the bustling holiday-spirited town, just became tarnished and broken.

 

“I have a roast pork marinating in the refrigerator,” the old man attempted to change the topic, hoping that the laughter in the boy’s eyes would return.  “It’s the eve of the Three Wise Kings; we should at least have a nice traditional dinner.  I’m expecting Jacinto to bring me a few pasteles.   You know who Jacinto is?  He’s the fellow who delivers my weekly groceries, and anything that I may need from the town.  He also does a few odd jobs around the house.  His wife makes the best pasteles and I usually order a few during the holidays.  He’s also adding a few bottles of coquito—it’s the best coconut eggnog on the island.  And not too heavy with the rum, so maybe we could give a little taste to Joselito here.”

 

Sara swallowed her anger down, and for the sake of Joselito decided to make peace with her father.  “You know how to make a roast pork?”

 

“Sure, your mother finally succeeded in getting me inside the kitchen,” the old man chuckled.

 

Sara turned her head toward the window overlooking the bushes of scented flowers that she had helped her mother plant so many, many years ago.  She wanted to cry, thinking how that sweet woman must have spent her last hours of life.  Sara shook her head, trying hard to remove the image from her mind.  She felt warm tears gathering behind her eyelids, and she fought diligently to keep them hidden there.  She sighed, and her tears dissolved to a stare straight onto the floor.

 

The old man watched his daughter closely, and he was almost sure of what was going through her mind.  He stood up and peeked quickly at his watch; it was a few minutes before three in the afternoon.  “OK Joselito, are you ready for your first lesson as a saint maker?”

 

The boy jumped and skipped and clapped his hands.  He looked like a puppy ready to catch a stick.  “Can I make a sea monster eating a big pirate boat?”

 

The grandfather chuckled and tossed the boy’s hair.  “How about starting with something simpler?”

 

“Like what?”

 

“A block with the first letter of your name.”

 

They walked together towards the old man’s work room as Joselito mumbled that a block with a dumb letter was boring.  “How about a spaceship with aliens jumping out?”

 

Sara watched them go as she stretched herself leisurely on the couch.  “While you two decide what masterpiece to carve out of a tree, I’m going to take a little nap.  And please, Joselito, don’t wake me up this time looking for more boxes, ‘cause if you do it’s going to take more than grass and oatmeal for the Kings to bring you a gift.  And Dad, please be careful with those sharp knives.  I don’t want to spend the night inside the Emergency Room surrounded with drunks and crying kids with new toys stuck up their noses and with my own child with a knife up his own nose.”

 

 

The early evening shades along with a soft breeze slipped silently through the windows moving the thin curtains in a hypnotic dance.  Sara yawned and stretched her arms over her head.  She felt well rested and invigorated by the peaceful nap.  The packages were still around her, and as she sat down on the couch, she could smell the spicy scent that filtered from the kitchen.  It had inundated the whole place with an aroma that reminded her when she was a child, and her mother sang and cooked for relatives who would arrive in their fine clothes carrying brilliantly wrapped gifts.  She felt a painful sadness envelope her and this time she allowed the tears to fall.  For five minutes, she cried sobbing quietly into her hands and when the tears finally stopped, Sara smiled.

 

She looked up beyond the ceiling, and into the entrance of the Heavens where she knew her mother was.  “Bendicion Mami, I’m back.  Do you like my little boy?  He’s your little grandson, with the same dimple as you.”  Sara lifted herself from the couch and carried the shopping bags into the bedroom where she went from childhood to a rebellious young girl.  It still had the same bed and dresser from the days when innocence was a wonderful world, and dreams were painted in pink and lavender and was as normal as the bright sun waking you up.

 

Sara took out all the items from the bags, carefully removed the prices tags, and began to put each piece in a box.  There were two nice shirts for her father, along with a pair of moccasins and three leather belts.  She also purchased for her father, a terrycloth bathrobe and a set of pajamas.  She pulled out and then folded neatly a pair of jeans for Joselito, and five T-shirts with cartoon superheroes embedded on the front.  She had been able to pick them out when her son was looking at toys in a small variety store they had gone into.  When everything was boxed and wrapped, she removed a red blouse she had bought for herself.  It was a lovely silk blouse that she knew was going to go perfect with a pair of black pants and matching comfortable flats.  Satisfied, she took the gifts and looked around for a place to hide them.  She grinned as she opened the two doors of the old mahogany dresser that stood on the other side of the bed.  She hid the gifts from her father and her son, and as she turned the skeleton key to lock them inside the tall dresser, a smile lifted her cheeks.  In her parents’ bedroom, they had a similar dresser, and that was the place her mother hid her gift, along with cans of hard Christmas candies and cookies.  When she was a child, there was no sign of gifts or sweets, until the middle of the early morning.   That was when she woke up excited that the Three Wise Kings had arrived and underneath her bed were toys instead of the shoe box with grass, and all over the house, there were cans of Christmas hard candy and sprinkled cookies.  Sara inhaled the phantom scents of those sweet memories.

 

She came out from the room and marched towards her father’s workroom.  She could hear the giggles of Joselito and the experienced instructions of her father.  She didn’t want to barge in and take them by surprise, so instead she made sure to make her presence be known.  When she entered the room, her father was already next to one of the shelves putting something inside a wooden box, while Joselito stared at her with a mischievous grin twisting his face in a comical mask.

 

“That was not a nap, that was an old-fashioned long night sleep,” Grandpa joked as he returned to the table and dusted the wood shavings off to the floor.  “Now you won’t be able to sleep.”  He looked at Joselito and added, “Let’s hope your mother doesn’t scare the Kings away.  They have a rule; if anyone is still awake and walking around, they won’t come in and instead would give those toys to another child who maybe put more oatmeal in their boxes.”

 

Joselito shot a worried look at his mother, his mouth open in disbelief.

 

“Now come on, Dad, let’s not scare the boy,” Sara shook her finger at her father in a mock reprimand.  “Don’t worry Joselito, by the time we finish dinner, I’ll be ready to sleep twelve more hours.  So what were you guys making?”

 

Sara inspected the room, curious to see her son’s first try at woodcarving.  There was nothing on the table but the tools.  Her son was wearing one of her father’s aprons, which dragged across the floor.  His face was streaked with dry sweat, and his neck bore two dirt collars.  There was sawdust in his hair and a few flecks on the tip of his nose.  “Kid, you are filthy,” she brushed the sawdust from his hair.  “You need a bath in the worst way.  Go on and take a bath, I’ll help you set the water.”

 

“But Mom, can I take a bath later,” Joselito begged.  “It’s still early.”

 

“Joselito,” Grandpa said, “Remember you have to be in bed early.  The Three Wise Kings would come the second you fall asleep.  Besides, they don’t want to come in the room of a smelly little boy.”

 

“Are they really coming here?  Maybe Santa Claus told them that he already gave me a Christmas present.”

 

“Well, there’s only one way to find out, and that’s by being in bed early and nice and clean.  Like a peaceful little angel,” Grandpa said as he pinched Joselito’s ear.

 

Reluctantly, Joselito lifted the apron over his head and shuffled toward the bathroom.  He stopped and looked at his grandfather.  “Grandpa, can we do more carving tomorrow?”

 

“Sure, tomorrow would be lesson number two,” the old man winked and watched Joselito skip down the hallway as Sara followed him.

 

“He’s a great boy,” Grandpa acknowledged when Sara returned from helping Joselito.

 

“Yes, he really is,” Sara smiled as she walked inside the workroom and sat on the edge of the worktable.  “He bonded with you pretty quick.”

 

“Oh, I’m delighted that he did.  You have no idea how many times I wished for this moment.  It was worth the wait.”

 

“You didn’t have to wait that long.  You could have visited us; New York is not that far.”

 

“You know how I feel about flying.  I never trust planes and never will.  You should have come back sooner.”

 

Papi, to travel with a small boy is not an easy thing to do.  At least now that he’s bigger the task is easier and even then it’s a bit hectic.”

 

The old man pushed the chair away from the worktable and offered the seat to Sara.  She waved him off.  “Well, the important thing is that now we are together as a family again.  You and Joselito have given me a great Christmas.”

 

“I’m glad.  Joselito is going to be sad when we leave.”

 

“Why don’t you stay longer?”

 

“It’s impossible.  I have to return to my job, and Joselito already missed enough days from school.”  Sara stood up and walked along the shelves, her eyes studying and absorbing the magnificent artistry of her father.  She came across the wooden box that she had seen her father put something in.  She noticed that the box was locked.  “So what were you making that you had to hide?”

 

Sara’s father smiled as he smoothed his thin mustache with his fingers.  “Joselito is making a surprise for you.  You should have seen him; he’s a natural.  In less than a half-hour he was moving the knife with confidence.  What an intelligent boy!”

 

“Yes he is.  He was tested in school, and they wanted to enroll him in a school for gifted students.”

 

“Excellent.  So when is he going to start?”

 

“He’s not; I declined the offer.  I want him to go to a normal school with no extra pressure.  He’ll do fine in the place he’s in now.”

 

The old man licked his lips to moisten them, and Sara saw a glimpse of a past that seemed to always project itself into modern days.  She remembered that habit of her father licking his lips.  He always did it whenever he was in a conversation that was stumbling.  And she realized that Joselito did the same thing.

 

“The pork roast smells great,” Sara forced the conversation, as she heard the happy shrieks of Joselito splashing in the bathroom.  “I’ll make rice if you want, with a nice green salad.  I noticed the vegetables out in the garden, and they would be perfect for the salad.  It’s wonderful that you kept the garden so well.  It looks beautiful, just like when Mom was alive.”

 

“I can’t take the credit for that.  Jacinto maintains the garden and the entire grounds around the house.  If it were left up to me, there would’ve been a jungle growing by now.  Anyway, what happened to Joselito’s father?”

 

Sara sat back down on the edge of the table and kept her eyes on the curled wood shavings on the floor.  She heard the question and considered if it deserved an answer or not.  She rolled her decision inside her head, and with her eyes still downcast on the floor, she responded.  “I don’t know and frankly, I don’t care.  Why do you ask anyway?”

 

“Because the boy deserves the truth.  Not lies about his father being dead when he’s still alive.”

 

“Please Papi, of all people, you should have been the first one to be pleased that as far as I’m concerned, he is a dead issue.  You always hated him.”

 

“It doesn’t matter if I liked him or not, he should be around his son, giving him the support of a father.”

 

Sara remained silent as she lifted her eyes from the floor and locked them with her father’s.  “Dad, the day that bastard left me and my unborn child, it was the day he stopped living.  I swore to God that as long as I was alive that man would never be near Joselito.  He tried to call me and make amends, but you know what?  I’m just like you, stubborn and determined to be my own person, so I sent him to hell.”

 

The old man’s jaws tensed, and then he allowed them to relax.  He picked a strand of wood shaving and twirled it around his fingers.  “I’m sorry; I didn’t know he ran out before your son was born.  I thought he left you a few years after he was born.  Why you didn’t tell me about this?”

 

“You never asked.”

 

He sighed loudly and closed his eyes, knowing that finally they were having a conversation that had been brewing between them since his wife died.  “All I ever wanted was the best for you.  That’s why I behaved the way I did.  When you chose to marry that lowlife, I felt that you were making a serious mistake.”

 

“I know that I did, and now you want to say ‘I told you so’?”

 

No hija, I don’t relish celebrating your misfortune.  But I’m not one bit surprised at what he did.  A man who abandons a pregnant young wife is the lowest scum in the world.”

 

“At least I had Mom to help me through.”

 

The old man blinked hard at the statement.  It really stunk.  “I was there for you Sara.  Maybe you didn’t see it, but I was there all the time.”

 

“Sure, I know the money that Mom sent me came out of your pockets, but it was not just money that I needed then.  I needed my family, and you were not there and neither did you allow Mom to come.”

 

“I told you Sara, about my fear of planes.”

 

“Mom didn’t fear them, and if she did I’m sure she was willing to push that fear aside and be there for her daughter and newborn grandson.”

 

“You hate me,” the father stared at his daughter with stern eyes, not looking for sympathy, but the truth.   “I know you never agreed with my decisions.”

 

“I don’t hate you Papi, if I did I wouldn’t be here.”

 

“I’m glad that you are here.  It’s been so long that this old house has heard the laughter of a child.”

 

“I miss the place, if that’s what you want to know.  But it’s very different without Mami.  Maybe that’s why it took me so long to return after her death.”  Sara closed her eyes and exhaled loudly.  “Why you didn’t know about her conditions?”

 

“Your mother was very private.  She kept her sickness a secret; she didn’t even confide in you.  I only found out about her brain tumor when it was too late, when I found her dead.”

 

“My poor mother, I wonder how much she suffered in the last minutes of her life.  I wonder how painful it was, her silent sufferings that she faced by herself.  Damn you, you were never there for her.”  Sara stared at her father with angry flashes clouding her eyes.  “You never took her anywhere.  The only place she ever knew was this,” Sara lifted her arms above her head in exaggeration.  “This house and only this house.  Did it ever occur to you why she was always such a private person?  Why she took those long walks while you were here cooped-up inside with your precious carvings?”

 

Hija, por favor, do not condemn me for doing something to support us.  I loved your mother, and she was a very big part of my life.”

 

“I’m not questioning your love for her, I’m just telling you the things that I saw and the things that I know.  Mami to you was just like a radio playing in the background, just there to fill the void in the quiet of the day and night.  You see Papi,” Sara was standing now in the middle of the room, “this room became your mistress, your obsession.  This piece of dead wood,” Sara took a large tree branch and threw it with disgust on the floor.  “You used to make things that became more real than the living people around you.  This whole room was your asylum, and the fumes, and the scraping sounds of your well-cared knives were your drugs—your addiction.  And because you were so consumed in what you were doing, you took in a mistress and an addiction without even knowing it.”

 

The old man watched his daughter’s rage, and it was a look he didn’t want to see ever again.  He stood up and walked up to her, and as he attempted to put his arm around her, she shrugged and moved away.

 

Hija, we cannot turn the clock back and try to undo whatever was already done.  That will always be frozen in the past and there’s nothing we could do now.  But let’s be true to each other and let’s try to live in peace as a legacy to your mother.  Yes, you are right; one hundred percent correct that my actions were selfish and the neglect that I committed towards your mom, I could never forgive myself for.  These past years have been a slow death for me without your mother.  I find myself getting up in the middle of the night, looking around the house for something, but not really knowing what.  Until I realize that what I’m looking for is her.  Now I have my work to keep me busy, the same thing that kept me from her.  But now it’s all I have to keep me sane, because if I stop and just let time go by, I’ll wind up cursing myself and wanting to just let go.”  The old man’s eyes were strong and determined as he walked forward, wanting to embrace his daughter.

 

“Now she has given me another chance, and this time I cannot fail,” he continued.  “I know that your mother has forgiven me, may God bless her and may she rest in peace.  That’s why I’m so happy that you came back home, to spend Christmas in our home, surrounded with her good memories.  Your being here has assured me that your mother has really forgiven me.  Navidad, was always her favorite holiday, especially the Eve of the Three Wise Kings.  Her smile was always the brightest and biggest when she observed you without you noticing her, as you woke up and realized there were toys under your bed.”  He tilted his head with misty eyes as he retold those beautiful moments of Sara’s childhood.  “You would jump out of the bed letting out a scream, then jump back on the bed yelling and giggling—‘vinieron los reyes—vinieron los reyes magos’, the kings came, the Three Wise Kings came’.  Now Sara, remember that I love you, and you’ll always be that little girl jumping on that bed, no matter how strong of a woman you have become.”

 

Sara came closer to her father and noticed the tears in his eyes, and for the first time in her life, she saw her father as a very weak old man.  She wrapped her arms around his waist and buried her head in his bony chest, and she sobbed.  This was her father, the man who drew little pictures of horses when she was five.  This was the man who sang her silly songs about a funny soldier named Maruco going to war, and recited with her about shoes that were tight and socks that made you hot, and about thin rays of sun falling in your eyes.  This was her father and regardless of their mistakes in life, in the overall picture, he was her tower of love and strength.  “I love you, Papi,” Sara whispered. “God really works in mysterious ways.”

 

“That’s the most lopsided statement in the world.  God does not work in mysterious ways.  His way is very simple; there are never any surprises.  If you have faith in Him, trust in Him, then everything is always right.  Yes, there are times that we find a few bumps along the way, but you have to also realize that on a nice walk through a beautiful meadow on a lovely day, you’re bound to find a rock blocking your path.  So when you do, all you have to do is sidestep that obstacle and continue your lovely walk, with God as your guide.  Nothing mysterious about that.”  He hugged her tight and kissed the top of her head.  “I love you so much, hija.  I love you so much.”

 

“Mom,” Joselito shouted from the bathroom.  “Did the Kings arrive yet?”

 

 

-4-

 

 

A serene night approached silently through the festive countryside, painting the distant mountains in dark purple hue.  A soft breeze chimed through the leaves of mango trees, and tiny tree frogs began to vocalize in a singsong chorus—‘coqui, coqui, coqui’.  Sara stood in the garden listening to the sounds that were like lost friends who finally meet on one lovely sentimental night.  She could hear the laughter of her father and her son coming from the workroom.  They were putting, as they said, ‘the last finishing touches’ on their projects.  They had warned her not to go inside, and she pretended to be upset and left the room stomping, with pouty lips like those of a spoiled child.  All three had laughed when she was not able to keep her charade for more than two seconds.  She strolled through the sweet-smelling grounds, stopping here and there as she found pleasure in the different flowers and remembered the many times she helped her mother to cultivate exotic plants and remove weeds from the garden.  From a distance, she saw the headlights of a car, and like flashing stars the headlights grew larger, and the sound of the engine grew louder.  The car draw near, and stopped in front of the house.  The driver shut off the engine and stepped out.  It was Daniel.

 

“Hello Daniel, how are you?” Sara approached the car and hugged her friend.  “Perfect timing, Joselito is busy with my father inside the room.  I could sneak the truck without him seeing it.  Thank you so much.”  She took the truck and pecked Daniel on his cheek.

 

“You look great.”  Daniel stepped back and admired her.  “Are you sure you don’t want to come with me later?”

 

“I would love to, but tonight is a special night.  Joselito is finally getting into this Three Wise Kings tradition.  If it were up to him, he would have jumped in bed right after he took a bath, which was about four hours ago.  Come on and say hello while I hide this.”

 

They entered the house and Sara quickly hid the truck and came back out.  Daniel was standing admiring the carved door.  He whistled with admiration at the decorative piece of work.  “My God, this door is amazing.  This looks like a page from a fairy tale book, or even better, a scene from Walt Disney’s Snow White.”

 

“I know, when I saw it, I just stood staring at it for hours.  It kind of pulls you into a web of innocence and dreams.  It looks much better in the daylight; you could see small animals, butterflies, bees and every blade of grass.  Come inside before the house gets invaded with bugs.  Do you want something to drink?”

 

“Yes, thank you.”  Daniel sat down and looked around.  This was the first time he had been inside Sara’s home, and he found it elegantly furnished.  The wooden sculptures of Sara’s father were placed all over the house.  It was like a live-in gallery of a famous artist.  Sara returned and he watched her, her red silk blouse accenting her body in a soft delicate way.  She was a lovely woman, and Daniel wondered if she had someone waiting for her back in New York.

 

“Sorry I can’t offer you something stronger than lemonade,” Sara apologized as she sat in the chair that faced the couch where Daniel sat.  “My father was never a drinker, so alcohol is something he never kept around.”

 

“This is great.  Besides, I’d rather wait until I get to the party for the alcohol.  It’s never polite to enter someone’s party with alcohol already in your breath.  You could easily get the reputation as a stinking drunk.”

 

Joselito came in, and behind him, Grandpa shuffled into the living room.  “Hi,” Joselito greeted him and went straight to Sara.  “Hello Daniel,” the old man stuck his hand out to Daniel.  The younger man stood up and shook Grandpa’s hand firmly, noticing that the elder man still had a strong grip.  “Felicidades, Señor Cordero, how are you?”

 

“I’m doing fine, how’s your mother doing?”

 

“She’s doing well, you know, just the usual thing that affects an older lady, but nothing to complain about.  You have an elegant home here, Señor.  That door is a masterpiece; it belongs in a museum where everyone could see it.”

 

“You’re too kind, Daniel, but it’s just something that I did to kill time.  But thanks anyway.”

 

“Perhaps I could one day come to your studio and buy some of your work.  I’m sure that they’re going to become priceless masterpieces in the years to come.”

 

“You mean when I die, right?” Señor Cordero joked, winking at Joselito.  “You figure you might as well buy it now at a lower price, and then you could sell it to the highest bidder.”

 

“No Señor, that’s not what I meant.  I really admire your work,” Daniel stumbled over his words.  He had always felt intimidated around the old artist.

 

“Relax muchacho, I’m only kidding here.  You know what?” Señor Cordero went to a table by a corridor leading to the bedrooms.  He picked up a sculpture of a baseball player swinging a bat.  “Here Daniel, the Three Wise Kings came early for you.  Feliz Dia de Reyes.”

 

Daniel placed the cup of lemonade down on the floor, and his eyes widened when he saw what it was.  It was the most detailed, lifelike figure of Roberto Clemente.  “Jesus,” he whistled in disbelief.  “Señor, I can’t take this.”

 

“Sure you can, but you are still welcome to stop by anytime and give me some of your money for other pieces of my work.  Just don’t try to back down from what you already committed yourself to.”

 

“Who’s that?” Joselito asked as he studied the wooden polished sculpture.

 

“The greatest Puerto Rican ballplayer that ever play the game,” Daniel said with pride as he turned the carved figure in his hands slowly, admiring every single detail.

 

They turned their heads as the sound of another car drove through the narrow dirt path, and stopped in front of the house.  “Now the party begins,” Señor Cordero exclaimed as he clapped his hands.  “I know the sound of that old truck anytime—it’s Jacinto.”  He looked at the clock on the wall.  “And like always, you could set your watch with that man.  If he tells you he’ll be here at a specific hour, you could be sure that he will arrive not one second earlier or one second late, but always right there on the dot.”

 

Señor Cordero walked to the door and swung it open as a small man with a face the color of baked soil, came in.  His hands were full and behind him, a shorter woman followed, carrying a huge pot with aluminum foil covering the top.  She smiled and nodded shyly as if she was not used to being around people other than her husband.  “Don Angel, Felicidades, excuse my tardiness,” Jacinto said.

 

Felicidades, and come in hombre, you are never late,” Señor Cordero said as he shook his hand.

Jacinto was the typical country jibaro that was constantly apologetic and always willing to help.  The hospitality of the Puerto Rican culture was alive and well inside Jacinto and his wife Lola.  “Jacinto, let me introduce you to my daughter, Sara and my handsome grandson, Joselito.”

 

Sara walked to them, and greeted them with a hug and a kiss.  “Thank you for everything.  My father has told me so much about you.  That garden looks beautiful, what a marvelous job you have done.  My father is lucky to be surrounded by people like you.”  Sara took the pot from Lola’s hands and inhaled the rich aromas that seeped through the foil.  “My father, also told me that you were the finest cook in the entire island, and by the smell of this pot I think he was lying—you might be the greatest cook in the whole world.”

 

Jacinto and Lola smiled sheepishly and struggled to accept the attention they were receiving.

 

“Well,” Señor Cordero pronounced in a happy animated voice, “let’s stop standing around doing nothing and let’s start this party once and for all.  Jacinto, open a bottle of your homemade coquito and let’s toast to the Three Wise Kings.”

 

They sat at the large table in the dining room.  At the head of the table Señor Cordero sat, like a general overseeing his troops.  There was a smile of content smoothing his lips upward.  His daughter sat at his right, and Joselito sat like a little man on his left.  Across from him, his old friend Jacinto and his wife Lola faced him with their quiet shyness, a sign that they were not comfortable sitting in formality with others.  And to the left of Sara was Daniel, deciding at her urging to stay for dinner.  Señor Cordero marveled at the table and the aromas of the traditionally colorful dishes, which made him think of a feast that only illustrious kings were allowed to enjoy.  The roast pork that he prepared, had been placed by Sara in the middle of the table, and she had shredded the meat for the guests to serve themselves with ease.  She made yellow rice sprinkled with parsley and tiny bits of ham, which looked like the rice her mother used to make.  On a large platter, Sara also prepared a garden salad; the fresh vegetables glistened under the overhead light, looking very inviting and tasty.  There was another platter where banana-leaf-wrapped pasteles were mounted, the ones that Lola had made, the smoke billowing above.  And right next to it a huge bowl of Lola’s famous arroz con gandules, rice with pigeon peas.  In smaller plates different types of typical Puerto Rican fritters were scattered around, that could be eaten as appetizers or as part of the dinner.  There were loaves of bread, warm and dripping with melted butter, dinner rolls, and two bottles of Puerto Rican eggnog, the coquito that Jacinto always made for Christmas.  A few cups of this smooth coconut drink would put any Scrooges to sing Christmas carols throughout the night.

 

There were also fresh fruits, sliced into bite-sized portions, and guava paste and white cheese.  As Señor Cordero glanced around with a happy song in his heart, he turned and kissed both his daughter and Joselito.  He then raised his cup of coquito and made a toast.  “Tonight is the Eve of the Three Wise Kings, the most enjoyable day during the Christmas season.  And for the first time in many years I feel like a kid again.  But unlike a kid who must wait until morning for his gift, this year I was blessed to receive it earlier.  My daughter is home, and with her an angel of a grandson.  Better gifts than these do not exist.  I am a blessed man, God bless you all.”  He kissed his daughter and grandson again, and raising his arms above the table he added with a shout.  “Yes indeed, this is a feast for kings.  What a wonderful night, the night of the Kings.”

 

For over two hours, plates were passed from outstretched hands, and cups were filled and refilled with the sweet rum-laced eggnog and tropical fruits.  Joselito stuck to his reliable Pepsi, and once in a while a sip of coquito from Grandpa’s cup.

 

Doña Lola,” Señor Cordero took a bite of a fried codfish fritter.  “When I die don’t bring me flowers, but bring me a few of these bacalaitos and a pot of rice.  Even the Devil would trade his soul for this.”

 

“You could make millions selling a cookbook with your recipes,” Sara forked out an olive from the arroz con gandules.  “I’m serious—do you have all these recipes written down?”

 

Lola smiled meekly and shook her head.  “You are too kind.  These are just simple dishes that I learned from my mother and my grandmother.  My sister is the real cook of the family.”

 

“God, that’s scary,” Sara laughed.  “If that’s true, I would love to meet her.  On second thought, I don’t want to meet her—I’ll be fatter than a pregnant cow.”

 

“Jacinto,” Señor Cordero scooped yellow rice and a helping of his own roast pork, and pointed at Jacinto.  “Why are you so skinny?  The way your señora cooks, you should be as fat as a lazy pig.”

 

“She never cooks like this for me,” Jacinto joked while removing the leave of a pastel.  “I only get a chance to eat like this on special occasions.”

 

Lola rolled her eyes, poked her elbow into Jacinto’s ribs, and then blushed.

 

Doña Lola, I’m really serious about the cookbook,” Sara insisted while she sliced a piece from the loaf and stuffed a bit of roast pork in between.  “I know a few publishers in New York that would be interested in printing a Puerto Rican cookbook.  In all the stores over there you find hundreds of cookbooks from different nationalities, but very few of Latin countries, especially Puerto Rico.”

 

Lola listened to Sara and looked at Jacinto, then shyly shrugged as she timidly threw a weak laugh as her response.

 

“Mom, this rice is good.  It tastes like candy,” Joselito tugged at Sara’s arm as he shoved a spoonful of rice into his mouth.

 

Sara looked at his plate and stole a few grains from the plate.  “Hmmm, delicious.  This is called arroz dulce, it’s rice made with coconut and raisins.”  She closed her eyes and savored the delicacy.  “My God, after tonight I’m going to go on a crash diet for at least a year.  I feel my body stretching by the second.  A little more and the button and belt of my pants are going to ricochet all over this room.”

 

“Don’t worry,” Señor Cordero scooped a spoonful of arroz con dulce and dropped it onto Sara’s plate.  “Out there in New York, you don’t eat like this.  Come to think of it, neither do I.  But a bit of gluttony is not going to make you obese for life.  It’s Christmas; you are supposed to eat like a pig, so keep piling it up until your stomach shuts down for the night.”

 

“Go ahead, Sara,” Daniel lifted the bottle of coquito and poured himself another cup.  “The way you look, you could afford to eat another plate of arroz con gandules and roast pork, and nobody would notice.”

 

Señor Cordero raised his eyebrow at Daniel and then at his daughter.  He swallowed the last drops of coquito and filled the cup again.  “Young man, are you flirting with my daughter?”

 

Daniel’s face turned red, and his words came out in a stumbled stutter.  “No Señor Cordero, I meant… was that… ahh—”

 

The old man started laughing, reaching over Sara and slapping the younger man playfully on his arm.  “There’s no need to lose the ability of speech.  I’m just joking here.”

 

Daniel looked at Sara and joined the old man laughing, his face still burning with embarrassment.  He raised his cup and caught everyone’s attention.  “I want to make a toast.”  He waited until everyone raised their cups, including Joselito’s can of Pepsi.  “To Señor Cordero for his hospitality.  May God bless this home.”

 

“What’s that music?” Joselito asked as he pushed his chair away from the table and ran to the window.  “Mom, Mom, look, there are men singing outside.”

 

Everyone followed Señor Cordero as he opened the door and turned the front light on.  From the path that led to the house, a group of people, like a mini procession, sang and played instruments.  Their singing was filled with laughter and joy, and their instruments kept a rhythm that made everyone inside come out of the house and onto the dirt path.  The group was made up of four men at the front, each playing a different instrument, a guitar, a guiro, maracas, and a tambourine.  Around them were ladies in colorful dresses, and children who ran and jumped at the lively music.  In a timely chorus, they sang.  “Este es el asalto, este es el asalto de la Navidad, (this is an assault, this is a Christmas assault).  “Si no tienen el trago, mándelo a buscar,” (if you don’t have a drink send for it).  “Levante compadre y abranos la puerta,” (get up my friend and open the door).  “Que la Noche buena es noche de fiesta,” (for Christmas is a time for feasting).

 

Joselito watched the people, clapped his hands and giggled at his mother.  “Why are they dancing in the street?  This is fun Mom, this is fun.”

 

Sara leaned towards him and explained.  “This is called un asalto, an assault, and these people are called a parrandas.  They go from house to house singing and dancing.  Until the host of the house invites them in for a drink and some food, then they continue to other houses throughout the night.”

 

She stood up behind Joselito and held his slender shoulders, moving him to the beat of the songs.  Her father put his arm around her and brought her close to him, and she noticed the happy tear at the corner of his eye.  “There’s nothing in the world like Navidad in Puerto Rico, Papi, nada en el mundo.”

 

They invited the people inside, and after a few drinks of coquito and helpings of the food still on the dining room table, the merry group continued down the path into the night, their joyful music filling the night with happiness.  Their catchy lyrics echoed in unison throughout.

 

“Wow that was something!  I bet you don’t see stuff like that in New York.  Even the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza is down by now.”  Daniel applauded and then closed the door to join the others in the living room.

 

“Joselito,” Sara tickled her son making him giggle.  “In a few hours you’d better be in bed, and guess what?”

 

The boy smiled wide, his eyes huge and excited.

 

“Come on, don’t be shy,” Sara tickled him some more as Joselito tried to hold her hands back while his laughter grew louder.  “I don’t know,” he lied between silly laughs.

 

“Oh yes you do,” Sara did not let up.  “Tell me who’s coming tonight.”

 

“The Three Wise Kings,” he shouted, to the delight of his grandfather.

 

“That’s my boy,” the old man slapped the armrest of the sofa.  “My americanito of a grandson is finally becoming the jibarito he’s supposed to be.”

 

Jacinto stretched his arms over his head and stifled a yawn.  Slightly embarrassed, he excused himself and stood up.  “Well, Don Angel, thank you for the great night, but it’s getting late, and we better be going.”

 

“Nonsense,” Señor Cordero waved Jacinto off and motioned him to sit down again.  “It’s still early and you are not leaving this house until you have a cup of coffee and a piece of that excellent bread pudding that your wife baked.”

 

“That’s a terrific idea Papi; I could really go for a nice strong cup of coffee.  And Doña Lola,” Sara began to walk into the kitchen, “I can’t wait until I sink my teeth into that bread pudding.”

 

“Hija,” Señor Cordero called out, “sit down and I’ll make the coffee.”

 

“Please Don Angel,” Lola jumped out of her seat, “please let me make the coffee.”

 

“You are my guest, Señora.  And besides, you and Jacinto have done more than enough.  Now everyone sit down and relax.  I insist.”

 

Papi, you relax,” Sara called out.  “I’ll make the coffee and that’s it, se acabo.”

 

“You hija?” the old man pointed at his daughter.  “You are going to make it?  Are you sure you know how to make coffee to please these people here?  I don’t mean that brown water that Americans call coffee.  You know the type you have been making me for the past few days.”

 

Sara smiled and shook her finger at her father.  “Now, now, for that insult you are not getting any coffee or bread pudding.  You are punished, now go to your room.”

 

“Come on Sara, I’ll help you.” Daniel crossed the living room and pulled Sara by her arm and into the kitchen.  “I’ll supervise to make sure you put in the right amount of coffee.”

 

“Oh my God,” Señor Cordero shook his head.  “A house filled with true Puerto Rican coffeemakers, and we’re going to trust the two people that have been corrupted with that watered-down American coffee.  God save us all.”

 

Once inside the kitchen, Sara took the largest pot and filled it with water, while Daniel opened the canister where the coffee was stored.

 

“I have good news to tell you,” Daniel said as he scooped coffee and dropped it inside the pot of water already heating up.

 

Sara pulled out a chair and looked at the food and the dirty plates and cups littering the table.  “I hope that the good news is that you’re going to clean up this whole mess.”

 

Daniel looked at the table and began picking up plates and scraping them in the garbage.  “Well, that’s not the news, but I could take a hint,” he laughed as Sara joined him in cleaning up.  She started to put the leftovers in containers and then straight into the refrigerator.

 

“I received a call today from an old buddy from my minor-league baseball days.”  Daniel shared the telephone call he had received hours after he came back from the town.  “He’s the manager of a minor-league team in Philadelphia, and he offered me a job as a hitting instructor.”

 

Sara swirled away from the fridge and gave him a hug.  “That’s wonderful.  Oh my God, you must be ecstatic.  Why didn’t you mention it during dinner?  We could have toasted for your success.”

 

“Nah, besides, I still have to meet the president of the baseball team.  Even though my friend wants me, the last decision is made by the main honcho.”

 

“Hey, but still that’s a great situation to be in.  Let me be the first one to say congratulations, and remember Philadelphia is not far from New York.  You could say we’ll be neighbors.”

 

“Perfect, and if I get the job, you and Joselito could come up for a few games on the weekends.”

 

Sara smiled as she covered the pasteles with cellophane wrap and searched for a place in the overly stuffed refrigerator.  “I’m sure Joselito would like that, he loves baseball.”

 

“Would you like that too?”

 

Sara looked at Daniel.  “Yes, I would like that.  Anything to leave New York and my tiny apartment for a while.””

 

Feeling like a teenage boy who just asked out the prettiest girl in school for the school dance and she accepted, Daniel emptied the last plate with a big goofy grin on his face.   The coffee began to boil and as Sara turned off the heat, she heard the scream of Joselito.  It was not a scream of joy, but a scream of panic and fear.

 

When she and Daniel ran to the living room, her father was on the floor, and his face was quickly turning blue.

 

“¡Dios mio!” Sara shrieked as she dropped to her knees and placed her hands under her father’s head.  “Papi, Papi what’s wrong?”  Around her, everything was moving fast and it was almost impossible to focus on just one thing.  The result was that everything came at her in a big blur.  Jacinto and Lola stood not far from her, staring down with frightened, shocked looks on their faces.  Joselito sobbed uncontrollably as he held his grandfather’s cold hand.

 

Daniel lifted the old man in his arms and shouted to Sara, “Come on, we have to take him to the hospital—we have no time to lose!”

 

Grandpa’s eyes were tilted upward, the pupils somewhere inside his head, and now the only thing visible were two bloodshot white balls.  His breathing was shallow, and it came out in a sickening weak whistle.  His lean body sagged in the strong arms of Daniel, as he ran slamming the door open with his shoulders.  Sara followed them, her entire body trembling and her heart beating hard and fast.

 

Daniel carefully put the old man on the back seat as Sara slid beside her father, placing his head on her lap.  Daniel slammed the door shut and ran to the driver’s side.  Joselito ran to the car crying and screaming; his happiness and joy shattered.  “Mom, Mom,” he struggled with the door handle trying to pull it open and join them.

 

“Joselito, please listen to me,” Sara spoke fast through the open window.  “Please honey, be strong and brave.  Stay with Doña Lola and Jacinto—we have to take Grandpa to the hospital as soon as possible.  Please Joselito, please be brave.”

 

Jacinto was now next to the boy, and he put his arm around the child’s shoulders.  Lola stood at the door of the house, her eyes wild and protruding.  Her mouth twisted into a curved line of helplessness and sadness.  “Come on son, let your mother take your grandfather to the hospital.  He’ll be okay, vente nene, come on,” Jacinto said, pulling the screaming boy away from the car.

 

Daniel switched the gear to drive and sped off, sending a cloud of dirt and pebbles into the festive evening of the Three Wise Kings.

 

Large palm trees along both sides of the road hung forward like drunken men supporting each other.  Wild grown weeds and bushes swept backwards as the car roared by, as if it was the old demonic carriage of Dracula rushing to its castle.  Sara heard her father coming in and out of consciousness.  She stroked his hair and whispered to him to please hold on.  Oh, por favor Papi, hold on and everything will be okay.  By tomorrow you’ll be watching from a hidden spot, at Joselito jumping just like I did when I was a little girl, realizing that the Three Wise Kings had arrived.  Ay Mami, por favor, Sara pleaded from her heart and into the Heavens where she knew her mother was.  Please don’t take him now, please not now, help him and bring him back.

 

Daniel slammed on his brakes, avoiding an oncoming car packed with laughter and loud happy music.  He swerved around them and then sent the car forward through the black winding roads.  He was going fast, but he knew these back roads so well that even with his eyes closed, he could easily maneuver the vehicle with ease.  He knew where the sharp turns came, when he had to slow down and at what strip of road he could gun the car until the speedometer reached a high speed.  In the near distance, he could see the streetlights of the town, and he thanked God that at this time everyone who had to be somewhere was already there.  The streets were mostly desolate, with an occasional car passing by.  He saw the school, the elementary school where he first met and fell in love with the woman behind him, and he was glad that the hospital was just yards away.  He could hear Sara talking to her father and that was a good sign, for it assured him that the old man was alive.  Daniel screeched to a halt in front of the hospital and before the car could settle, he jumped out and ran to the passenger’s side.  He ripped the door open, and with the care reserved for a newborn, he lifted the old man out.  Sara slid out of the car, her eyes wet and her mascara having painted three swirly lines down her cheeks.  “Don’t worry Sara, he’ll be okay,” Daniel winked at her.  They ran inside the emergency entrance and in seconds a nurse and an orderly whisked Sara’s father away.

 

“There’s nothing more we could do now Sara, but wait and pray.”  Daniel took Sara’s trembling hands into his and squeezed assuredly.  Her slender hands were lost in his big hands, puffed out by many thrown and caught baseballs in his playing days.  “He’s in good hands.  This is a fine hospital; my mother has been here a few times, and they have always done a superb job.  Your father will be okay.”

 

Sara stared at Daniel’s dark eyes, and she wanted to believe what his words were saying.  She felt his strong hands, and she craved the strength that seeped through his pores, but it was hard when your father was somewhere between these walls fighting for his life.  She looked around at the few outpatients waiting for assistance.  It was nothing like the slaughterhouses that most emergency rooms of New York hospitals become, but it was an emergency room, nevertheless, a terrible place to be on the Eve of the Kings.

 

Hours went by as nurses constantly passed them, with their assuring smiles and squeaky shoes announcing their presence.  The strong smell of alcohol was making Sara sick, and her head spun in dizzy spells of vertigo.  The cup of coffee they received from the nurses tasted like liquid air—her entire insides were numb.  She wanted so much to be able to see her father, and she shook inside at the thought of him dying before she could see him again, before their father and daughter relationship could be rekindled once more.  She had moved out of the house and into the foreign arms of New York at the age of twenty two, believing the lies of her knight in shining armor, when actually, he was just a conniving con man with deceiving eyes.  She had stayed away from her father, and at the same time punished her mother for over fourteen years; fourteen years that she now cursed herself for her stubbornness and blind pride.  The foolishness and the dumb self-importance that people tend to wrap themselves with becomes childish nonsense that does not deserve a second to be wasted on its charade when faced with situations like this.

 

Sara leaned and placed her head on Daniel’s shoulder.  She closed her eyes, content that Daniel was here with her and that Joselito didn’t have to witness such depressing surroundings.  She felt her tears, warm and new, welling inside her eyelids, and she let them fall gently and unattended.  It felt good to taste the salt in them.

 

A doctor approached them, an older doctor, and she felt as if she had been cast in a sentimental television show.  Let’s not overact in this scene, she could hear a phantom director reminding her, and then she blinked and realized that this was not a show but the reality in its worst display.

 

At first, the doctor’s lips moved with that accentuated motion of perfect Spanish diction.  She was fascinated at how his tongue rolled in his mouth and how his lips stretched and puckered up on syllables that were falling on her deaf ears.  It was like listening to a foreigner speak to you, and all you could do was stand there with an imbecile grin plastered on your confused face.  She shook her head slightly, and now his alien words became clearer; she was finally able to understand his educated Spanish.

 

Hola Señorita, I’m Doctor Negron,” he reached out and shook Sara’s and Daniel’s hands.  His hand felt soft, warm and safe.  “Is the gentleman your father?” he asked, and Sara nodded clutching her hands against her bosom.  “He suffered a mild heart attack,” the doctor continued, his bedside manners exhibited perfectly.  “He was very lucky that you brought him as quickly as you did.  Every second was vital.  He’s under heavy sedation, and for a man his age, he’s doing as well as could be expected, but he’s not out of danger yet.  The next few hours will decide the outcome.  We have done everything humanly possible, now all we can do is wait and keep a close eye on him.”

 

Sara exhaled and bit her lower lip as she stared at the doctor.  Heart attack.  Those ugly grave words popped into her mind over and over, like balloons from a comic book.  People die of heart attacks; she acknowledged as she felt her tears again spilling over her cheeks.  She wanted to bury her face in Daniel’s shoulders and willed this nightmare away.  But she couldn’t, she had to be strong, the same way she told Joselito.  We all have to be strong; she scolded herself as she took a deep breath and composed herself.

 

“Can I see him?” she asked, proud that her voice was strong and did not falter one bit.

 

“I’m afraid not.  Right now he’s in intensive care, being attended by the finest cardiovascular team on the island.  The best thing to do is to go home and rest; tomorrow should be a better day.”

 

“I have to see him,” Sara protested, the stubbornness of her father coming out in full force.

 

Doctor Negron glanced at Daniel, hoping to find an ally there, but after finding none he gave in.  “You could see him, but just for a few minutes.  Please understand that his chances of recovery lie only on the professional care he’s receiving now.  I cannot emphasize enough, every second is very vital, extremely important.”

 

Sara and Daniel followed the doctor, then entered and elevator and rode it to the second floor.  They took a left and went through double doors that led them into a narrow corridor.  Sounds of beeping machines resonated around them until finally they stopped in front of a well-lit room where Sara’s father was hooked up to tubes and monitors.  A team of doctors and nurses moved in and out of the room looking at charts, giving injections and readjusting or placing hoses that curved and dipped into medical machines.  Sara came closer and Daniel held her by her waist as she looked down at her father.  His chest was exposed, and she saw how it rose up and down as wave lines traced the movements of his life on a monitor.  She stepped up to the bed and placed a kiss on his forehead.  His skin felt tight and cold.  “I love you Papi.  Joselito is waiting for his second lesson, and I’m waiting for another hug.”

 

They drove back in silence at a moderate speed, for now there was no reason to hurry.  Sara glanced at the car’s dashboard, and it was only two in the early morning according to the clock.  They passed by quiet sleepy neighborhoods on this Three Wise Kings Day, and soon entire streets, and sidewalks would be jumpy and alive with children showing off their new toys.  Soon a glorious morning would be born, where happiness and laughter would bring songs of joy, and breakfast would consist of hard Christmas candies and sweet cookies.  They were the same candies that she ate as a kid; candies with green and red stripes and hints of cinnamon, and yellow and white candies that would melt in your mouth.  There would be powdered cookies and cookies with sprinkles in assortment of colors.  Yes, very soon everyone would hear the shrieks; the delightful shrieks of older siblings yelling at the top of their lungs ‘Vinieron los Reyes’, the Kings came.

 

Sara stretched her neck forward and then sideways, feeling drained.  Everything seemed like it happened long ago, as if the feast that brought so much joy and love was now a distant memory that had accumulated years in between.  She took an extended look at Daniel and in his eyes, she saw exhaustion as he blinked abruptly as if something was blocking his view.  She reached out and squeezed his hand that was not holding the steering wheel.  “Gracias, Daniel.  Thank you so much, you have been my knight in shining armor.”

 

He shrugged and smiled with embarrassment.  “Anyone would have done the same I didn’t do much.”

 

“You are too modest.”  Sara mouthed the words Thank You again.

 

“He’ll be okay, Sara, no te apures, he’ll be all right.”

 

“I hope so,” Sara pushed the hair away from her forehead.  “I hope to God that he’ll be okay.”

 

The car turned around a bend and now they both could see the house.  Sara could make out Jacinto’s truck being illuminated by the outside light that was still on since the parranda had arrived with their Christmas carols, their aguinaldos.  Daniel pulled over, shifted the car into park and slowly stepped out.  He came around, opened the passenger door and helped Sara out.

 

“Come inside for coffee and some bread pudding,” she offered as she looked up and watched the shadows of the dying night hide the fatigue in his face.

 

“I’ll come by later if you want.  It has been a long day; now all I want is to go home and get some sleep.  Just save me a piece of the bread pudding,” Daniel smiled and led Sara to the house.

 

“Daniel,” Sara held his hands tight.  “I will never forget this, never in my life.  If my father pulls through, I’ll owe you his life.  Gracias, my special old friend.  Thank you.”

 

Sara placed a gentle kiss on his surprised lips and went inside the house as Daniel headed back to his car with a skip in his walk.

 

Jacinto looked up from the magazine he was flipping through and jumped to his feet the second Sara closed the door behind her.  They both stared at each other, and then Sara smiled.  It was a weak smile, but it seemed to make Jacinto relax.

 

“He’s a fighter,” Sara tried to erase the worries from Jacinto’s eyes.  “They are doing everything humanly possible.”

 

“Is there anything we could do?”  Jacinto took a few steps toward her and then stopped, feeling strange and lost.

 

Sara noticed his uneasiness, so she approached him and touched his arm.  “You could pray for him, after that there’s little we could do.”

 

Lola appeared on the threshold of the living room; she had come from the direction of the bedrooms.

 

“Thank you for taking care of Joselito,” Sara walked to the older woman and gave her a hug.  “I don’t know what I would have done without your help, both of you.  Muchas gracias.”

 

Lola nodded her head, looking a bit bashful.  “Your father is a fine and thoughtful man.  We are happy that we could be of some help.”

 

“How’s Joselito?” Sara sat down on the couch and pulled Lola to sit next to her.

 

“He’s asleep, but it took him a while to go to bed.  After you left he just stood by the window looking out, without moving or saying anything.  We were getting worried but then Jacinto got him to loosen up.  Finally, he walked away from the window and sat with us.  He’s a very bright boy.  He made us laugh, what a great little boy he is.”  Lola smoothed her skirt and then folded her hands and left them on her lap.

 

Sara leaned back on the couch, the weariness and the melodrama of the entire day had ultimately caught up with her.  She felt her eyes closing and her body slipping slowly into a relaxation that was heading straight into a deep sleep.  Abruptly, she opened her eyes and straightened her back.  “I’m sorry; it has been a long grueling day.”  She took Lola’s hands and gave them a warm press.  “Why don’t you two stay for whatever is left of the night?”

 

“Thank you Señorita,” Jacinto stood in front of them.  “But you need your rest and by us staying here it will be an added burden.  We don’t live far.  Besides, we have two dogs and a crazy cat that in a few hours would be roaming around looking for food.  And I’m sure they also know that today is the Three Wise Kings Day; they might be expecting a present.  They are worse than spoiled kids.”  Jacinto chuckled and stretched his hand to his wife.  “Vente vieja, let’s see what the Wise Kings left underneath our bed.”

 

Lola rose to her feet and Sara followed them to the door.  “Thank you again,” Sara took Jacinto’s hand.  “And thank you for keeping the garden looking so great.  It reminded me of how my mother used to always keep it.”

 

Jacinto bowed his head and waved his hand shyly in front of Sara.  “I can’t take too much of the credit; your father has been the one that has kept it like that.  I just keep the weeds out, but your father is the one that mostly keeps the flowers growing so beautiful and bright.”

 

They hugged and kissed, and when Sara closed the front door, a relief came over her.  Now she could be herself, and she crumbled onto the sofa, allowing all her sadness and fear to escape.  She looked around the dim living room, with its many memories crammed tightly within all the walls.  Her mother was all over the style of the furniture and decorations, as if her father had decided to keep her alive in his own way.  And now he also had added his own touch, as if his unseen hands were guiding Sara to see where his legacy would stay.  It was true what Daniel said.  The house resembled a museum, an exclamation point of what her father held so dear; his culture, his pride all rolled up into the sacred lost art of Santos making.  She stifled a cry and instead smiled at the warmth she felt in this house, the house of her childhood, where love would always prevail.

 

Sara got to her feet and walked slowly around the room, and the magic of memory entwined with reality.  She felt herself floating through a threshold that carried her from her days of pigtails and scraped knees to what she had become now—a woman, a mother, and a daughter.  A person who finally learned that parents, just like sons and daughters, make mistakes; and there’s nothing wrong with admitting it and also forgiving those mistakes.  She made the mistake of not returning to her home all these years.  She had tried to punish her mother for succumbing to a disease that was slowly killing her and had kept it from her daughter.  But was it really a selfish act, or an act that her mother used to prevent her loved ones from suffering along with her?  Sara had also blamed her father for not being there for her mother, but in reality, he always was.  Even so, in those rebellious days of ignorance, she chose to hate him, for her own failure to understand the basic rule of life. We all make mistakes—that’s the rule, which applies to everyone who breathes and laughs and cries.  And the only time that we stop making mistakes is when we’re heading into the arms of God.

 

Sara walked slowly to Joselito’s room, carefully pushed the door open and went in.  Under a thin ray of moonlight, she saw her little boy sleeping deeply, his lovely face a perfect picture of tranquility in the glow of a bluish haze.  She loved her son—her little trooper—who had endured so much in his short life and yet he marched through all the turmoil without a whimper of a complaint.  It was not easy to grow up without a father, like many of his friends’ fathers who he had watched teaching them the simple things like catching a ball or flying a kite.  She passed her hand over his forehead, feeling the coolness of his skin.  She watched him sleep, his smooth breathing raising his small chest in a rhythm of a peaceful slumber.  His closed eyelids showed off his long eyelashes, which every other second would flutter, revealing his glassy bright eyes.  He looked like an angel who had fallen from the sky.  That was why she felt so happy with the bonding her son and her father had developed in a short time.  In her father, Joselito had found the father, the solidness of a family structure.  And in Joselito, her father found the ability to laugh again.  She was overwhelmed with the love that her father and son now shared, and if her father died on this night, at least she felt the happiness that both grandfather and grandson were able to enjoy.  No, Sara shook her head furiously, angry with herself for thinking such a terrible thought.  Her father couldn’t die—he mustn’t die.  For the sake of my son, my dear God, don’t take his grandfather away.  She lowered her head and kissed her son as he stirred for a bit, and shifted his body closer to the middle of the bed.  “God bless you my son,” Sara caressed his cheeks gently with her fingers.  “Que Dios te bendiga, mi amor.”

 

She rubbed her forehead and pushed her hair back.  “Mami,” Sara whispered, as she looked out the window where the night hid the moon, and stars were still glowing like small diamonds and precious silver stones.  “Give us strength.  Please, Mami keep us safe and help Papi, please let my son hear more stories from him.”

 

On shaky legs, she took herself to her room, wanting so much to rest and let this whole nightmare come to an end.  She pushed the covers on the bed to one side and slid her body in.  She was still dressed, but she was too tired to even fathom changing into her nightgown.  In a few hours, Joselito would be awake, searching to see if the Three Wise Kings were as real, in his innocent mind, as jolly Santa Claus was.  Her eyes began to close. They felt heavy as if they had been laced with lead, and in a sudden move, she bolted out of the bed.  My God, she almost shouted, I nearly forgot about the Three Wise Kings.  She ran to the tall dresser and flung the doors open, thankful that she had forgotten to lock the dresser, because the skeleton key was nowhere to be found.  She moved a blanket out of the way and took out the big yellow Tonka truck.  Deeper she searched, and fished out a can of hard Christmas candies and a jar of holiday cookies.  Clutching everything in her arms, she hurried to the living room.  She placed both the jar and can of goodies on the coffee table, and then tiptoed quickly to Joselito’s room with the truck.  Quietly, she knelt down in front of the bed and lifted the box of grass without dragging it on the floor, as she exchanged the shoe box with the truck.  Above her, Joselito moved and mumbled something incoherent.  Sara held her breath, afraid to move.  She couldn’t afford to have Joselito wake up and find her underneath his bed with a shoe box of grass in one hand and a brand new yellow truck in the other.  Come on Joselito keep sleeping, she coaxed him with her mind.  Don’t wake up until I leave.  Come on kiddo, give me one more minute.  She could hear the springs of the bed squealing from Joselito’s movements.

 

Outside a car roared by, possibly partygoers rushing back home to do the same thing she was doing now.  She remained still for another second and slowly raised her head to take a quick peek at her son.  He was sleeping, and once again she was touched by how angelic and beautiful he looked under the blue moonlight.  She fought hard against pinching his cheeks.  Sara stood up slowly, ever so slowly and carefully.  She backed out of the room, her eyes transfixed on the little boy’s body as she held the shoe box steady and close to her waist.  She closed the door slightly, leaving a thin crack open, and rapidly stepped out to get rid of the box.  She stopped in the middle of the darkened living room, in a comical pose, not sure which way to go.  And as Sara stood there the most extraordinary realization popped into her mind.  She never knew what her own parents did with the shoe box of grass when she was a kid.  At least with the cookies and milk that kids left for Santa Claus, you could finish them yourself, but what do you do with a box of grass?  She brought her hand over her mouth and began to giggle.  Uncontrollable laughter began to escape from underneath her hand, and she ran into her room, opened the dresser, threw the box in and then jumped in the bed.  She grabbed the pillow and stuffed her laughter into its softness.  She doubled over like a lunatic laughing at her own dumb joke.  The laughter came in hysterical hiccups, until she felt tears of relief streaming down her face.

 

She straightened her body and closed her eyes, the pillow held pressed against her bosom.  A comatose sleep was beginning to take over, while deep inside her throat she heard the beginning of snores.  Visions of dreams began to evolve in her subconsciousness; distorted images that held no substances her curiosity, but just filled voids that opened and closed in her fleeting new dreams.  She felt herself succumbing deeper into the world of slumber and soft whispered images from the mind.  There was a touch; gentle, soothing, almost maternal, which brushed her hair away from her face.  A rustling, like breeze tickled, her eyelids, and the moistness of kisses fell delicately upon her cheeks.

 

Sara was now at peace, not wishing to move a single muscle as she wondered if what she was feeling was part of a dream or a special supernatural encounter.  It no longer mattered, for whatever it was; she knew it was a blessing, a comfortable peaceful state.  It was like the tenderness of a mother when her child is sick, and no medicine could cure as well as her reassuring touch and her saintly soul.

 

Sara floated down into the abyss of weightless wonders, and then slowly climbed into the consciousness of reality.  She opened her eyes and sleep was no longer a desire, but more of a wasted nuisance.  Through the window, she could see streaks of orange and blue slicing the dark navy blue sky.  The beginning of morning was stretching its colossal arms, and Sara slid out of the bed and strolled toward the window.  A flowery scented breeze came and settled around her like a shawl to keep her warm.  She inhaled a deep breath that filled her with a new and bright clarity.  There were sounds of laughter and dogs barking, and quickly she glanced towards the direction that those sounds were coming from.  In front of a neighboring house, a group of children were pouring out into the dew-littered grass.  Some ran and leaped from the steps, while others stood on the porch, jumping in an agitated happy motion.  Throughout the neighborhood, Sara saw other kids with the same enthusiastic dance.  And before long, under the still ink-stained sky, excited fully awakened shrieking boys and girls played and ran to show off their new toys that the Three Wise Kings had brought them.  “Vinieron los Reyes Magos, the Three Wise Kings came,” they shouted in hoarse voices entwined with glorious laughter and thunderstruck joy.

 

Sara dashed to Joselito’s room and stopped short from busting through the door.  She peeked inside through the door that was ajar and saw her son moving sluggishly, but he was not fully awake.  The commotion from outside was slipping slowly into the room, and those sounds were making him stir and were removing the sleep from him.  She felt her smile spread instantly, and a tingle of anticipation rose to her heart as she observed Joselito sit up on the bed.  He rubbed his eyes with balled fists, then looked at the window and listened curiously to the sounds of children.  He surveyed the room, and Sara wanted to swing the door open and shout at him to look under the bed. for the Kings had arrived.  However, she held herself back, for she wanted so much to see his reaction when he discovered the magic of toys underneath his bed and the wonderful experience of the Three Wise Kings.

 

Joselito removed the covers and threw them aside as he lay on his stomach.  He pulled himself close to the edge of the bed, and with his head dangling, he peeked under the bed.  To Sara’s joy, he leaped out and landed on the floor.  He fell on his knees and removed the shiny yellow Tonka truck, shouting with joy and excitement.  “Mom! Mom!” he was screaming now as he ran in circles with the truck raised over his head.  He scrambled fast towards the door and crashed against Sara.  She laughed with delight, wrapping her arms around him and planting kisses on the top of his head.  “Grandpa was right! Grandpa was right!  The Three Wise Kings came into my room!”

 

Joselito ran back to his room and lowered himself to take a closer look under the bed.  He turned around with his eyes wide open, and his mouth shaped in a perfect ‘O’.  “Mom, the grass, the shoe box is gone!”

 

He raced to the window and looked around, perhaps hoping to find the camels’ hoof tracks.  He looked quickly at his mother, his face the perfect picture of wonder-filled innocence.  “Wow Mom, the Three Kings are as real as Santa!”

 

Sara entered the room and sat on the bed, while lovingly watching as Joselito played with the yellow truck.   He maneuvered a lever on the side of the truck that lifted and tilted the back compartment, just like a real construction truck.  She could see in her mind Joselito stuffing the back of the truck with rocks or sand and working the lever to empty it out.  In his eyes, she witnessed the glow of his joy that made his entire face shine, and she felt his jubilance right inside her heart.

 

“Did Grandpa tell you about the other tradition of the Three Wise Kings?” Sara went to Joselito and rustled his hair.  He looked up and shook his head.  “You also get to eat candies and cookies while you play with your brand-new toy,” she said.

 

Joselito bounced to his feet, giggling and staring at his mother.  “Really?”

 

“Come on,” Sara took him by the hand and into the living room.  There she opened the can of hard candies and the jar of cookies.  Joselito stuck his hand inside the jar and removed a cookie spread with green frosting, sparkling with the sugary coating.  He ate one, then another one, and then took a third one as crumbs cascaded down his chest and into his new truck.  He chose a candy with red and white crystallized stripes, threw it in his mouth, and laughed while he made his Tonka truck climb through the sofa’s cushions, pretending it was a real truck driving through rocky dunes in some construction site.

 

“Hey Mom,” Joselito stopped playing and glanced towards her room.  “What did the Three Kings bring you?”

 

Sara laughed as she ate a small cookie.  “Silly boy, only the children receive the presents.”

 

Joselito frowned and began walking towards her bedroom.  “Maybe this time they left something for you.”

 

“I don’t think so.  Old fossils like me don’t get gifts from them.  Besides, I didn’t leave a shoe box with grass.”

 

“But maybe they missed you all those years you were in New York, and now they left you a present, like a doll or something.  Come on Mom, let’s see.”  Joselito grabbed his mother’s arm and pulled her off the couch.  Sara let him pull her as they went into her bedroom, her laughter joining his as it echoed happily through the entire house.

 

Sara didn’t have to look under the bed; all she had to do was look at Joselito’s surprised smiling face.  She came around him and when they were near the bed, she knelt down and stared under the bed.  There was something there, pushed slightly in and half-hidden by the shadows.  Her hands were trembling, and she felt her heart beating nervously, excitedly.  She reached out and wrapped her fingers around the handles of a wooden box.  She dragged it out and in the light, she saw that it was the same box she saw in her father’s workroom.  She studied the box, and seeing that it was not locked, she slowly lifted the lid.  A sweet smell of oil and varnish, the exact same aroma of her father’s workroom, rose and filled her with nostalgia.  She looked inside, and carefully wrapped in red and green tissue papers, were separate objects.  She took one and gently removed the paper, and what she found was the wooden statue of one of the Three Wise Kings.  With unsteady hands, she unwrapped each figure, and when she finished, next to the wooden box on the floor, she had the Three Wise Kings mounted on three beautifully detailed camels.  Their faces were vivid, so real, and in their eyes, there was a depth like oceans of wisdom.  Finely carved robes adorned their bodies with creases and neat folds, which gave an appearance of fine silk.  Their beards, curly and richly painted matched their great mustaches that sat above their gentle smiles.  Sara traced each figure and swore that they were actual miniature human beings created by her father.  And if she closed her eyes, she swore she heard their voices and their souls.

 

“Mom, you’re crying,” Joselito noticed Sara’s tears as he put his arm around her.  Sara wiped the tears from her eyes and took one of the Kings, slowly rotating the wood sculpture in order to see every stroke that was born from her father’s gifted hands.  “When I was a little girl,” Sara began telling her son, “I always wanted my father to make me, the Three Wise Kings and their camels.  Every day, I used to come to his workroom, and while he was working on something, I would beg him to stop and make me the Kings.  And he would nod while scraping the wood that he was creating at that moment.  After a while, I realized he was too busy, with too many orders from people all around, so I guess he figured his work had to come first.  I stopped asking, until one day he came into my bedroom, and he asked me, ‘Sarita, do you still want the Three Wise Kings?’  And of course, I was older then and other things were more important than figures made of wood.  So I told him no, that I would rather have money to buy a new dress.  He just looked at me for a long time, and then he apologized and asked me whatever happened to his little girl.  And I told him your little girl was a woman now that would rather buy a bottle of perfume than receive a set of dumb wooden things.  I know he was hurt, and he kissed me and left the room.  One year later I left Puerto Rico, and the last thing he said was ‘you will always be my little girl’.”

 

Sara placed the King down and wiped more tears away.  “With these Three Wise Kings and their camels, my father gave me a beautiful gift.  He gave me the happiness of being young, and the carefree spirit that youth brings.  I will always be his little girl.  Just like you, Joselito, you will always be my little boy, even when I’m old and gray, and you are a strong tall man.”

 

 

-5-

 

 

Sara put the telephone down, frustrated that the doctor was not in the hospital to give her news about her father.  She took a sip from her coffee mug and stretched her mouth in disgust.  The coffee was already cold, so she pushed the cup away and bit the last remaining cookie that was on her plate.  Joselito watched her closely. His upper lip was smeared with the chocolate milk, and now he looked down at the cookies on his plate without the hungriness he displayed when she opened the jar.  He jumped to his feet and ran to his grandfather’s workroom, returning quickly with something that he hid behind his back.

 

“What do you have there?” Sara asked him, her eyebrows arched, and her lips pushed out into a grin.

 

He swung his arms from his back, and in his hands, he held something wrapped in tissue paper.  It was not as neatly wrapped as the Three Kings, for it had the wrinkles and small tears that come from the inexperience hands of a child.  “This is for you Mom, my gift to you for the Three Wise Kings,” Joselito said smiling and feeling very proud.

 

Sara took the package and removed the paper, and inside was a crude wooden sculpture of a face.  It was flat on three sides, and where the face was there was a curve where most of the wood had been shaved.  The eyes were hollow little holes, and the nose was a straight line with slashes on both sides, representing the nostrils.  The mouth was a wavy small cut, and it gave the impression of a smile.  The ears were two half-moon shapes.  “This is really beautiful, Joselito.  Thank you so much.”  She reached out and pulled him to her, hugging him and giving him a big kiss.  He sat on her lap and put his arm around her neck.  “Is this supposed to be you?”  Sara asked him while studying the wooden face.

 

Joselito laughed and shook his head.  “No, that’s the face of an angel.  Grandpa showed me how to make it.  I did it all by myself.”  He was happy with what he made for his mother, and now as they sat at the kitchen table, they held to each other.  Outside, the sounds of children could still be heard, but not with the same enthusiasm of hours ago.

 

Sara brushed her son’s hair with her fingers while looking into the face of the angel.  She kissed Joselito’s earlope and tickled him.  “So this was what you were doing in secret all the time.  You are a sneaky little rascal, I bet you helped Grandpa put the box under my bed.”

 

Joselito looked at Sara, and in his eyes there was a puzzled look in his eyes.  “No Mom, yesterday Grandpa put the box on the shelf before he went to say hello to Daniel.  Then we ate and he never went to the room again.”  The child looked down at the floor, and his eyes became watery with tears.  “Grandpa told me that he was going to keep the box in his room, and that he was going to wait until you fell asleep before he put it under your bed.  He said that he was going to pretend he was one of the Three Wise Kings.  Mom…” Joselito jumped to his feet and declared.  “Mom, it was the Three Wise Kings who put the box under your bed.  They knew that Grandpa was not here, so they did it for him.”

 

Sara felt a shiver run through her body, and she placed her fingers over her mouth as she gasped.  It was true.  After coming out from his workroom with Joselito, her father never went back to the workroom, nor did he go to the rooms.  All the time during the night he was with everyone, until he fell on the floor with the heart attack.  She remembered the dream of the gentle caresses and maternal kisses on her brow and she knew, she just knew, who had placed the wooden box under her bed.  It was not a King, but a Queen.  “Joselito,” she got to her feet and looked outside.  “Where is this special place that Grandpa took you?  Do you remember where it was?  Could you take me there?”

 

Joselito took her hand and started walking towards the door.  “Yes, it’s the place that Grandpa said that Grandma lives now.”

 

They hurried out of the house and through the dirt path passing children and parents enjoying the beautiful Three Kings Day.  The breeze blew through their hair and after turning around a curve in the road, the only thing in their view was fields of nature growing untouched by human hands.  Scents of ripe fruits and wild flowers fragrance the air, and multicolored butterflies seemed to escort them in their lovely walk.  Joselito stopped and studied the grounds around him.  Then, pointing his finger, he took Sara by the hand and walked toward the direction of a clutter of mango trees that seemed to push against the clouds above.  He shoved bushes to the side, and like through a magical portal, he led his mother into the special place.  Sara inhaled the godly scents and shuddered at the magnificent garden that welcomed her.  She walked into the place, the soft grass massaging her feet and the flowers, the millions of flowers, surrounding her being.  It was a garden from Heaven, Sara knew right away.  And as she turned slowly, she suddenly realized that this was almost a replica of her mother’s garden.  And now everything came to her, and the words of Jacinto rang through her ears.  Her father was mostly responsible for keeping the house garden adorned with her mother’s favorite flowers, and it seemed he had done the same in this special place.  This was a tribute to her mother, and into the grass, Sara fell on her knees, shaking and crying.  Joselito sat on a stone that Sara knew was not placed there by nature, but by her father, probably to remind him about the obstacles in life.  She felt the spirit of her mother flying through the wind, and she heard the melody of her mother’s voice in the songs that came from the trees.  Sara went to her son and took him into her arms.  She buried her face against his heart, and she blessed the day he was born.  “Mami,” Sara threw her voice into the breeze.  “This is your grandchild and thank you for bringing me back home.  You always knew how to make the Three Kings Day a glorious one.  Please now, please bring Daddy back home.  Let him come back home.”

 

They spent hours lying on the grass and looking at the drifting clouds playing their majestic games.  There goes a fat dog; Sara would point at a cloud, drifting wandering by itself.  That looks like a bear taking a poop, Joselito would laugh out loud.  Look over there, it looks like the face of the crossing guard by your school, Sara would giggle and hold her sides.  Mom, that one looks like a fat man blowing balloons.  After the cloud games, they walked around and Sara told Joselito of the various flowers and each of their names.  It was the best therapy that the soul could receive.  This was really a garden from Heaven, and Sara never felt so much pleasure and love than what she felt now surrounded by such exquisiteness.  This was a place her mother discovered many, many years ago.  Then her father kept it as lovely as the first day her mother shared her private corner with him.  Now her son was able to give Sara a bit of her parents’ love, and here as they strolled through this ravishing little piece of Heaven, she felt like a family once again.

 

They hiked back to the house, and as they got closer, the ringing sound of the phone echoed through the air like an elevated shout.  And Sara knew—she just knew—that the phone was waiting to give her the good news about her father.  He was alive, and ready to come back home, for that was another gift underneath their bed of life.  Sara was once again a little girl coming back to the house to find another gift that her mother used to always hide.  And this time the gift was something special that Sara, and her son could share for years to come.  Her father was coming back home because even though her mother wanted him to join her in her own garden in Heaven, she was willing to let him be here.  Here on Earth a little bit longer, surrounded by his daughter—his little girl—that he recently found, and his grandson that he would teach to become a great Santos maker.  Her mother was giving them the best gift of this Three Wise Kings Day.  And as she ran into the house, Sara yelled at Joselito with merry tears in her eyes…

 

“¡VINIERON LOS REYES, VINIERON LOS REYES MAGOS, VINIERON YA!”

 

 

 

THE END

 

 

"DARE TO ENTER HIS MIND"