The Three Kings Behind the Glass

Mariela is a good-natured and cheerful easterner in her thirties, living in the capital for years, to whom God has not given children, but “the devil gave her nephews,” and every time there’s an opportunity not to skimp on gestures to show her affection to the cherubs and to see, according to her own words, “how their faces light up,” when she gives them a present although they must share it between them. Last January 5, with the little bits of money she found “on the side,” she went early to one of the shopping centers in the municipality of 10 de Octubre selling in hard currency, to entertain them with something for all three, as once again there was not enough money to get something for each of them.

As a part of the population is returning to the tradition — although modestly on the most part — of celebrating Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, in Cuba, the number of people flocking to buy toys at the beginning of the year makes for long lines.

With the despair of those who wait, the protagonist of this story got in line at one of the stores that seemed better stocked, but as always happens there are people who get impatient and walk away to give time for the line to advance and attend to other matters in the interim, and the crafty devils who arrive recently who spread confusion about the order of the line* with the intent to “fish in troubled waters.” There was even a big woman of seven feet who threatened, “So! As the last one doesn’t appear, I am the first!”

The disorder was gaining in temperature and voices were rising in anger. But the line breakers didn’t make a clean getaway this day and the police showed up. The tough guys stayed to play the role of “red hot” offended ones with the intention of cutting the line, while the cops, batons on hand, got out of their cars ready to “convince” those present to be orderly and disciplines.

As Mariela grew up with the “sticks” of her parents and the police state, she wasn’t intimidates and stood there, impassive, waiting for a clobbering that wasn’t necessary, because everyone rapidly took their places. Easy job for the repressors that left an atmosphere with the subtext that, once again, their presence was sufficient. It could be argued that even the Magi, the Three Kings, were “threatened” and intimidated that day.

After the vicissitudes that confronted the star of our story, and after spending an hour on her feet, she managed to enter the establishment and select various options for her nephews that she had seen through the shop window. She liked them all and decided that the money she had been planning to spend on a pair of sneakers that same day, would be used to acquire at least one extra toy and so, for the first time, surprise the little boys with more than one toy on this significant date. She didn’t give much thought to the decision. It was fast because her feet were tired from so much walking and waiting, they were swelling up as a sign of protest.

But there was still one more line, the one where you go to hand over your cash to a person who, with the calm and superiority of someone who by necessity, but unwillingly, and in a bad mood and as if doing you a favor, attends to each customer in slow motion. Standing in that line she noticed the face of a little girl, maybe 6 or 7, stuck to the window, looking in with melancholy innocent eyes at the display of toys inside the store and beyond her reach. Her nose flattened and both little hands on each side of her face presented a bleak picture, her large eyes focusing so much sadness, like a chiaroscuro of Rembrandt portraying the face of poverty. And in the sensitivity of our heroine, the sun began to shine that morning.

Inquiring among those present who she was, one of the shopkeepers said was the little girl who came with her physically disabled mother to ask for “financial aid” from the people as they left the store. “It’s because the money she gets from social security isn’t enough,” added someone who paid and left. Mariela’s turn to leave also arrived (at last!), and she had to pass right by the girl, who was still looking through a little piece of the shop window she could reach that was not blocked by people. Without any hesitancy she addressed her:

“What are you doing, sweetheart?”

“Watching my toys.”

“Which ones are yours?”

“All of these…” she said, describing with her index finger an arch that covered the width of the place.

“What did you ask the Three Kings to bring you?” asked our protagonist while hiding the hand that was carrying her bag.

“Nothing, because my mother says they don’t come to Cuba, but I know they don’t exist, that the toys come from the stores. I have playmates who get gifts on the Day of the Three Kings. Do you think that if I were disabled, like my mamá, people would give me money to buy myself some?”

*Translator’s note: In Cuba people don’t necessarily stand neatly in line; each new arrival asks “who’s last” and so the order of the line is known, even as people come and go, sit down nearby to wait, chat with their friends elsewhere in the line, and so on.