Roberto Christiano

Waiting for Kings


Roberto Christiano won the 2010 Fiction Prize from The Northern Virginia Review for "The Care of Roses." He was also a Pushcart Nominee for poetry published in Prairie Schooner. His chapbook, Port of Leaving, is published by Finishing Line Press. His poetry is anthologized in the Gavea-Brown Book of Portuguese-American Poetry published by Brown University.


“Pick up those brambles and throw them onto the large pile,” Tia Teresa shouted.

Luisa struggled to carry the twigs and branches. She wasn’t used to hard work. And there was the sun—the hot yellow sun on her back. She shouldn’t have eaten so much sweet bread for lunch. She was drowsy and wanted to nap.

The only other child working the field was Pedro da Rocha. Stronger and faster, he worked with a heightened intensity. The children in the village called him Rat Eyes because of his sharp small eyes and rodent-like ferocity.   

She barely made a dent in the stack Tia Teresa had heaped up. Tia cut through the brush with a large sharp knife, slicing down the thick sea grasses with the strength of a man. Luisa’s father couldn’t have done better. And her great aunt had all this strength even with her hair turning white and her face starting to wrinkle. 

Some brambles broke loose from Luisa’s arms. She needed to go back for them, but instead, dumped her bundle and strolled to the very edge of the hilltop. Below was a bay of the ocean called Salir do Porto. A line of gold-striped cabanas rimmed the beach. The waves of August were spilling over the silver sand. American tourists with their buzzing transistor radios were there on vacation. American children were swimming in the shallows of the Portuguese bay—they were very white and wore fancy bathing suits. If she stood very still and very quiet she could hear them laughing.

“Menina, get away from that edge,” shouted Tia Teresa. “What do you want to do—fall to your death?”

“Well, if I did, at least I would be out of your way.”

“Child, do not make me hit you.”

“Sorry, Tia. I wouldn’t want you to do that.”

Tia Teresa blew out a breath, straightened her kerchief, and rapidly said a Hail Mary.

Luisa wished her aunt wouldn’t pray out loud. She wished she were back home with Mama.    

That morning Mama had awakened her before sunrise. This was unexpected and displeased her greatly. After a quick breakfast, Mama kissed her on the cheek and said, “Luisa, I’m going to the Silva’s today after the washing. They have some sewing for me to do. Their daughter needs me to do the final fitting for her confirmation dress.”

Luisa swallowed the last of her breakfast roll. “Can’t I come with you?”

“I’m sorry but I just have too much work to do today. You know how fussy that Silva girl can be.”

Mama was tying a great ball of laundry together with a rope.

“Can’t I wait on the beach for Papa’s boat?”

“Luisa, Papa doesn’t come back till tomorrow.”

“He’s always coming back tomorrow.”

Papa was on a fishing trip. Sometimes the fishermen were gone for days and days at a time and sometimes the days turned to weeks. For Luisa even a couple of days were a long time to be away from Papa. Mama never left her with an aunt when Papa was home. There was only one consolation and that was a small one. When he did return, he brought back the little chocolate umbrellas wrapped in colored tinfoil.

“You’ll have to stay with your great aunt. Besides, Tia Teresa needs help clearing the top of the hill. Some rich man is going to build a house there.” And then under her breath, “Jesus knows the rich build everything.”

“Not Tia,” Luisa objected. “She’s so mean.”

“Querida, you know she loves you—in her own way,” Mama said, pinning a checkered scarf to Luisa’s hair.  

Luisa wondered what way was her own way. At best it shouldn’t involve working in a field like a dog. 

Mama kissed her on both cheeks and took her by the hand as they left the house. It would be a long day.

The siesta was over. A merciful afternoon breeze from the bay blew across the wild rushes on the hill. Luisa could hear the click of picks and the cutting swish of knives of field hands nearby. She was experimenting with a new carriage technique. She picked up a few twigs in each hand. The goal was to move Tia’s stack of brush to the larger stack on the road. From there the men would load the brush onto a cart pulled by a burro. She set her mind to the task. She tried counting how many pieces she could pick up. The game got old quick so she tried singing out loud. 

A nightingale sang at the fountain.   
A hunter came and shot her dead.
And when he picked her up he said,
“There’s not even an ounce to eat.”

Luisa let out a scream as she dropped her bundle. A sharp pine needle had pierced through her sleeve. She refused to give in and cry. She rolled up her sleeve and saw a small red mark. Slowly and cautiously, she retrieved the branches. When she reached the large pile, she let her armful go with a sigh. The repetition of the chore was dreadful. Luisa looked up and saw Tia Teresa walking toward her with determined strides.

“Menina,” she barked. “What’s with you?”

“I can’t do it. I’m not strong enough.”

“I’ll say you can’t. You just dropped those brambles onto the stone pile.”

Luisa glanced down—she had confused the stone pile with the wood pile.

“It’s too hard. And a needle pricked me bad.”

Tia grabbed Luisa and hugged her hard. “Mother of God, mirror of grace, what am I going to do with this child? I swear, I don’t know how you’re going to make out this fall. You know you’re going have to spend a whole extra hour after school in first communion class. How are you going to handle that when you’re restless as a bee?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know, huh? Here you’ve reached the big age of eight and this is all you have to say.” Tia took out a partially clean handkerchief and wiped the sweat off Luisa’s face. “Well, what are your going to do with yourself today?”  

“Can’t I play with my marbles?”

“All afternoon? You’ll go crazy.”

Tia Teresa looked around.  Her eyes fixed on a small footbridge a little over a stone’s throw away. There was a shaded bench on the bridge. She pointed to the bridge. “You see that bridge over there with the bench?”

“You mean, Rabbits’ Bridge?”

“Yes, that’s the one” Tia said, kneeling down to Luisa’s level. “You know what they say about that bridge, don’t you?”

“I only know that rabbits like to sleep there.”

“They say that it’s a magic bridge.” Tia lowered her voice. “They say that whoever sits on the bench and waits all day will see the three kings, the Magi who went to visit the baby Jesus.”

“The Magi? Really?”

“I’ve always wanted to check it out myself, but you see, someone has to work, and thanks be to the grace of God, I still can. But if you want to try, I’m sure you could play with your marbles there.”

Luisa considered the choice. Stranger things than the appearance of the three Magi had occured in Salir do Porto. The villagers said that the soul of Fernando Spiro, the town drunk, came back as a dove with a ring around his neck and flew into the tavern for a brandy. Others said that Saint Quiteria was seen on her feast day, carrying her head that was chopped off and crying out, “Follow Jesus Christ.” Sometimes on nights of the full moon, sheep would bleat through the entire night until the moon turned red. There was also a good chance that Tia Teresa was making all this up. It could very well be a story she stole from one of those telenovellas she watched. And yet, the notion of the Magi in Salir do Porto was so odd and so peculiar that Luisa was forced to question if it could possibly be true.

“All right, I’ll wait for them.”

“Praise to the saints. You go and enjoy your marbles. You know how to shout if you need me.”

“Yes, Tia.”

Luisa slowly walked over to Rabbits’ Bridge and sat down. The bridge was in the shade of a thick, squat olive tree. Its silvery green leaves arched over the bench and swayed with the occasional wave of salt sea air. When Luisa breathed in deeply, she could smell the sardines the fishermen were drying on the beach. She took out her bag of marbles and played three chickens and a rooster. The one gold marble was used to knock out three brown ones. This held her attention for about fifteen minutes. Luisa then looked at the words carved into the bench and guessed at what they meant. She was behind in reading at school. Maybe this year she would be able to settle down and learn how to read. She saw a plus sign between two words and above the words a rainbow filled with hearts and stars. This was the work of her cousin João because he was crazy for Adelina. He etched their names on every bench in the village. She traced her fingers over every star, and then, for want of nothing else to do, settled down into the work of waiting. 

After awhile, an older field hand, riding a burro, approached the bridge. The burro was pulling a cart piled high with branches. The man, the burro, and the cart were all unstable. When the man crossed over, a third of his load fell off, but he kept on going.

Maybe the old man was deaf. He could easily get into trouble with the rich boss if he didn’t pick those branches up.

Luisa stood up and called, “Senhor, Senhor.”

The old man slowly turned back.

“Yes, what is it, menina?”

“You’ve dropped a lot of your branches.”

“Ay!” the man let out an exasperated sigh, as he slowly got off the burro. He grunted as he knelt to pick up the bundles. “My arthritis isn’t so good today, but then again, it wasn’t so good yesterday either.”

Luisa gathered some stray twigs and handed them to the man. He nodded and said, “What are you doing over here? I thought I saw you working in the field.”

“I tried but I can’t do it. Tia Teresa said I could sit here and wait for the Magi. You know, the three kings that visited the baby Jesus.”

“The three kings, huh?” the old man asked and arched a brow. “I hear it’s been a long time since they came to Portugal.”

“Well, I imagine they’re busy.”

“You could be right. Maybe if you wait long enough they will come today. They certainly haven’t come since the last election.” He cleared his throat. “Democracy! Who needs it? We got rid of Salazar but we still can’t eat. How’s that for progress? Oh, I could complain and grumble. That’s what old men do. What do I know? Maybe those Magi will come for you.”

“I hope so.”

“Well, good luck to you, menina.”

The man mounted the burro and sauntered slowly downhill until he was out of sight. Luisa tried to play marbles again but the interest had vanished. She then returned to singing. She sang every song she knew—three times. She looked over the bridge to see if there were any rabbits about. There were none. They were out looking for greens. There was nothing to do but wait and sit.

It must have been several hours later when Maria Rosa came up the road. Maria Rosa was a cousin of Luisa’s. She wasn’t a first cousin, but Luisa couldn’t remember if she was a second or third cousin. Half of the village was related to Luisa and it was so hard to remember how. Maria Rosa was about sixteen years old and lived up on the hill with her parents. She was walking with one hand on top of her belly.

Breathlessly, she slowed to a stop at the bench. She leaned down and kissed Luisa on the cheek.  “Hello, prima.”

“Hi, Maria Rosa.”

“I am going to have to rest a moment.” She took off her kerchief and fanned herself with it. “This boy is killing me,” she said, addressing her stomach.

“You mean, the baby?”

“Yes, little Carlos,” Maria Rosa said, as she sat down and positioned her back against the bench. “I just came from the doctor. Ten blocks. I’ve walked ten blocks with this boy. I say boy because he’s always kicking me. That’s what boys do. They kick.”

“Is he moving now?”

Maria Rosa put Luisa’s hand on her stomach. “Yes, he wants to get out.”

Luisa waited quietly for a kick. At first there was nothing. The stomach felt like a large ripe melon.  She ran her hand over the length of it and paused near the navel.  Then she felt a succession of short thumps.

 “He’s like a jumping cricket,” she giggled.

“More like a hammer, I say. He’ll probably grow up to be a driller.” Maria Rosa laughed and fanned herself again. “Lord, my skirt is sticking to me.” She raised her skirt above her knees and fanned herself with it. “I am so thirsty from my walk. You wouldn’t have any water with you, would you?”

Luisa looked at the workers up ahead. Near the hilltop in Tia’s lunch basket, she knew there was at least one water bottle that was full. If she ran real fast maybe Tia Teresa wouldn’t catch her.

“Hold on a minute,” Luisa said. She made a dash for it.

As she ran, she heard the slash of Tia’s knife as it struck against a resisting clump. Luisa reached the basket, pulled the towel off, and clasped her fingers around the cool glass bottle.

“Menina, what are you doing?” Tia barked.

“I’m just getting some water.”

Tia looked at the bench then back to Luisa. “Who is the water for?”

“It’s for me. I’m so thirsty.”

Tia Teresa launched into a quick Glory Be, finished the prayer, and then shouted, “As long as it’s not for Maria Rosa. A girl like that doesn’t deserve a drop.”

“No, it’s for me,” Luisa answered, and ran back before Tia could say anything. When she reached the bench, she opened the bottle, and handed it to Maria Rosa. “Don’t let Tia see you with this.”

“Don’t worry, you just stand in front of me. She won’t see a thing.”

Maria Rosa slowly drank from the bottle and handed it back half full.

“Thank you, you are a dear.”

Luisa faced the road and took a sip. Tia was too busy to notice.

Maria Rosa sighed. “You know you and your mother are the only ones in the family who even speak to me.”

“Why is that? 

Maria Rosa stretched her arms above her as if she was reaching for the sky. “People are funny, querida, a little too funny.”

“I don’t understand.”

Maria Rosa kissed Luisa again. “No, of course, you don’t.” Maria Rosa flexed each foot separately then massaged her knees. She slowly stood up and started to walk. “I have to get home and start dinner. Thanks again for the water. Tell your Mama I love her.”

Luisa watched her cousin start up the winding uphill path that led to her home. As she neared the bend, she looked back and blew Luisa a kiss. Luisa waved and kissed back.

The waiting game resumed. She tried to recall the names of the wise men. There was Gaspar and Melquior, but who was the third? Wasn’t there a black one? Luisa wondered if the three kings would cancel their visit because she left the bench. She never dealt with kings before so she couldn’t be sure.

She got out her bag of marbles and played four ferrets and a fox. It was very similar to three chickens and a rooster, only you played with five marbles instead of four. Her restlessness found a focus and she became so engrossed in the game that she didn’t realize that she’d left the marble bag open. The marbles spilled out over the bench and onto the grass. It took a while to find them all and once she did she was no longer interested in playing. She tightened the drawstring on the bag and placed it on the middle of the bench.

Luisa then stood up on the bench and surveyed the field. The afternoon sun was casting  shadows of the laborers along the cleared ground. She sat back down. How much longer was this job going to go on? The three kings had better hurry up if they were going to get here.

Pedro da Rocha, the boy known as Rat Eyes, was coming down the road with his satchel over his shoulder. He crossed the bridge with his chin up and eyes looking down. He stopped for a second.

“Was that Maria Rosa sitting with you?”

“Yes, that was Prima Maria Rosa.”

“My father says she’s a slut.”

Luisa stood up. “I don’t know what that is but I’m sure it’s not good.”

“A slut is a woman who sleeps with men.”

Luisa climbed back up on the top of the bench. “Well, my mother sleeps with my father, and he never calls her that.”

“That’s because it’s a bad word. You want to know another bad word?” He crept right up to the bench. “Another bad word is thief.”

Pedro grabbed the bag of marbles out of Luisa’s hand and skipped off.

“Hey, those are my marbles,” she said, jumping off the bench.

“Not anymore,” he said, lowering his chin and thrusting it toward t her.

“Prima Maria Rosa gave those to me.”

“Well, then you won’t miss them because they came from a damn slut.”

Luisa bent over and searched for a small stone. She found the perfect one. Carefully, she aimed for Pedro’s arm and threw the stone as hard as she could.

“Ouch.” Pedro dropped the bag. He quickly bent over and snatched it back up. “You think you can hurt me, don’t you?”

Luisa got another stone.  

“Well, I did, didn’t I? Now put down that bag or I’ll hit you in the eye.”

“Oh really? Just you try.”

Luisa drew her hand back.

“Okay, okay,” Pedro yelled. “So you can throw a rock. You want your stupid marbles? You really want them?”

“Yes I do.”

“Well, then here they are.” He turned the bag upside down.

Luisa watched as the marbles tumbled out in slow motion.

Pedro casually dropped the empty bag.

“I’m going to tell Tia Teresa.”

“Go ahead and tell her,” he snapped.

“She’ll beat you till your tail bleeds.”

“Oh, I’m so scared.”

Pedro turned his back to her and started walking down the road.

“Go and get lost, you evil eel,” she shouted.

“You go and get lost.”

She aimed the remaining stone at his butt. She summoned all her muscle, threw, and missed. Pedro kept walking at a deliberately slow pace. As he reached the bend, he shook his bottom and jeered, “I guess you can’t throw that well after all.”

“Shut up, Ratty,” Luisa yelled.

Pedro stopped for a moment, fully hearing the insult. He turned back and stared at her. His eyes bore into her as if they could eat her. She shivered. Then he abruptly faced the road and scurried around the bend, taking the path that led downhill to his home.

There was something bad about that boy that you could do nothing about.

She set to gathering all the marbles once more. She found all but one—the only gold marble in the set. She searched again and again with no luck. Maybe the three Magi could help find her gold marble when they came. Gold was, after all, one of the gifts they brought.

But would the three kings still come or could they change their minds? The priest at church said Jesus wanted us to be kind to our enemies. If the three kings were connected with Jesus then they might have nothing to do with her. Christian girls were supposed to turn the other cheek. But how could Jesus say that in the first place? If Jesus had to deal with Pedro da Rocha he would have hit him good a couple of times.

A few of the workers crossed the bridge as the sun was starting its descent. A breeze stirred the leaves of the olive tree. She watched the remaining workers putting away their saws and knives. Tia Teresa was striding to the bridge with the lunch basket in one hand. When she reached the bench, she sat down with a hard thud.

“Lord, this is the first time I’ve sat down since lunch. Every muscle in this body is aching.” She stretched her legs out in front of her and then allowed them to flop down. “Well, did they come?”

“You mean the three kings?”

“Yes, the Magi. Did you see them?”

“No, and I waited all day,” Luisa said, with a disappointed sigh.

“I’m sorry, menina.”

Luisa suppressed the desire to cry. “I think you made it up.”

Tia Teresa leaned back. “Now, you know Tia doesn’t make anything up. She may not be as sweet as pudding, but she doesn’t make anything up. This is a magic bridge. You can ask the old nun at church on Sunday.”

“I really wanted to see them.”

“I know you did and you did a great job of waiting.” Tia picked up the half empty water bottle, threw it into the basket, and shook her head. “Maybe they were busy in Lisbon and couldn’t get to Salir today. You can always try on another day, Luisa.”

“I wanted to see them today.”

Tia pulled Luisa close and stroked the girl’s hair with her calloused hands. “I know, I know.” Tia smelled of earth and sweat. “You know, your mother is making the white bean soup with little noodles right now. That’s the one you like, isn’t it?”

“Yes, and I’m starving.”

“I thought so. Do you want me to carry you downhill?”

Luisa nodded yes. Tia Teresa easily lifted her up and put her over her shoulder. “I’m going to pretend that you’re a sack of flour.” Tia bent sideways, picked up the lunch basket with her other hand, balanced it against her hip, and started down the road. “Tell me, did that boy bother you?”

“Yes, he tried to steal my marbles.”

“He didn’t”

“He did.”

“Well, that will be the last time he tries that.”

“What are you going to do?” Luisa asked, beginning to feel tired.

“Oh, don’t worry about it. He won’t do it again. I know his Papa. A drunk for sure but he won’t let his boy get away with that.”

Luisa leaned her head against the muscular neck. The rhythm of Tia’s stride was reassuring. Soon she would be home and Mama would kiss her. Tomorrow Papa would be back. Nobody would ask her to work. She could do as she pleased—more or less.

Mama had the soup pot already on the table. And there was bread as well. The house smelled of soup and the soup smelled of love. Mama took Luisa in her arms and kissed her many times. All three sat down at the table. Mama asked Luisa about her day. She wanted to know every little thing. Luisa told her about Pedro da Rocha, Maria Rosa, and how she waited for the three kings at Rabbits’ Bridge.

“Who told you about that bridge?” Mama asked.

“I did,” Tia Teresa said, slurping down the soup.

“You told the child that story?”

“Yes, I did. What harm could it do?”

Mama cut the bread with a sharp ridged knife. “Well, probably none, but I don’t like to deceive the girl.”

Luisa didn’t know the word deceive and was curious what it meant, but she was too hungry to care. Mama and Tia didn’t seem to care much either because the table was silent except for the sounds of eating. When they’d had enough, Mama cleared the dishes. Tia wiped the corners of her whiskery mouth and then bent down and gave Luisa a hard kiss on the head. “We’ll I’d best be off. The sun will rise all too soon, and I’ll be out there breaking my back again.”

Mama kissed Tia on both cheeks and thanked her repeatedly. Mama and Luisa stood at the door until Tia strode out of sight into the cool blue night.  

Mama shut the door, bolted it, and then took down a spool of yellow yarn from the shelf in the parlor. She turned on the one light in the front room. Gently sitting down, she strung out a length of yarn between all her fingers and extended her hands to Luisa.

“Querida, do you remember how to play monkey in a hammock?”

Luisa pinched two key strings and the yarn began to rock back and forth. She giggled then let go of the yarn. The yarn unraveled.

Mama began to knit. Every fall and winter a shopkeeper in the city paid her for the beautiful scarves she created. Sometimes she would use all the colors of the rainbow in one scarf. Other times she would add flowers or rabbits or stars. Mama called it her chicken work because she would buy a chicken for every two scarves she sold. Luisa nestled next to her. Mama began to sing.

The nightingale flew to the hunter and sang,
dear hunter, my hunter, even though today
you shot me dead without a pause or pang,
every night I will fly to you and sing.

Luisa was sleepy with the sound of the lullaby. She wanted to hear the end of the song, but her eyelids were closing against her will. She felt Mama’s arms pick her up and take her to bed. Her mother undressed her and put her under the cover and kissed her on the cheek. When her eyes opened, it would be the day Papa was coming home. Papa’s boat was softly rocking away at sea and he was asleep in a hammock. The hours of the night passed without Luisa stirring.

Then just before dawn the three kings appeared to her in a dream. They were all sitting on a  bench in the palest of light. Luisa realized that she knew which king was which. Melquior was the old one with a long snowy beard, Gaspar was the young man like her Papa—only he had kind almond eyes like the Chinese detective on TV, and Baltasar was the tall, strong black one. She had never seen a black man before, yet there he was, right before her. He wore a beautiful sash of gold around his waist. The sash seemed to vibrate as if it were electric. Next to the Magi on the bench was a box of gold and two small silver tins. Luisa couldn’t see herself in the dream, but she knew she was there.

“Good morning, Luisa,” said Melquior, running his fingers through his beard.

“Good morning,” echoed the other two.

“How could it be morning when I’m asleep?” Luisa asked.

 “Because in an hour your mother will come in your room to wake you.” Gaspar said, with a slight bow.

“I waited for you all day.”

Baltasar smiled and said in a deep voice, “We too waited, Luisa. We know all about waiting. We waited on a star.”

“How do you wait on a star?” she asked.

“It takes a lot of patience. We are waiting still,” Melquior answered.

“Who are you waiting for?”

The three kings said nothing. Then after a long pause, Baltasar leaned forward and spoke as softly as a morning bird. “Don’t you know? We are waiting for you, Luisa.”

“Me? Where are you?”

“Why, don’t you see? We are at the bench,” Gaspar said, and gestured to the olive tree. A small breeze caused the silvery green leaves to tremble. Then Melquior moved aside and pointed to the plus sign that her cousin had etched in the wood.

Luisa gasped. “You’re on Rabbits’ Bridge.”

Baltasar smiled again . “Yes, my friend. Everyone in Salir passes over this bridge. Some sit and rest, others go, go, go, but we can only wait for a little while.”

Melquior stroked his beard again. “It’s nearly dawn and we have such a long way to go.”

“We’re tired and yet we must go,” Gaspar said.

“We’re not as young as we used to be,” Baltasar said, with a sigh. Melquior and Baltasar also sighed.

“You see, Bethlehem is such a difficult place to get to,” Melquior said, his voice cracking with age.

“Hold on kings,” Luisa said. “I’ll be right there.”

Luisa woke with a start. Dark blue light was seeping in from the edges of the shutters. She stood up on her bed and unlatched the shutter and the blueness filled the room. She then tiptoed to her parents’ room and peered in. Her mother was snoring. She returned to her room, opened the window, and quickly climbed out, even though she was barefoot and only wearing her nightshirt. The village was asleep. The path was cool under her feet, the earth tingling.

She broke into a run and sped through the silent streets. She passed the baker’s, the earliest riser, who was sweeping his porch. He stopped and watched her fly by. The windmill on the hill behind his house was starting with a grind and spinning its arms. The sky was growing lighter with marbled streaks of pink.

Soon the road reached a bend and tilted uphill. It would only take a few more minutes. Surely the kings could wait for a few minutes. They couldn’t be in that much of a hurry. They knew magic, after all. Luisa was now running as fast as she could. She could feel her heart beating. She never felt more alive or awake. In the distance, she could make out the outline of the bench. Only seconds more. A few more strides. Breathless, she made it to the bench.

No one was there. She had come all this way for nothing.

The Magi had left for Bethlehem. The first tentative rays of the sun touched the grass.  Luisa’s eyes widened. Tied to the end of the bench was a sash, gold and glowing. She untied the sash. And then—then something small and round and perfect tumbled out onto the bench. A gold marble.      



© The Acentos Review 2019