The Impostor Magi


by Frank Thomas Smith


A boy from the village ran into our yard at lunchtime on the fifth of January and announced at the top of his lungs that the Three Kings were coming to the schoolhouse that night at nine o’clock. That’s how news in Las Chacras is announced – by word of mouth. I remembered that a neighbor had asked for a donation to buy sweets and balloons a few days before. Making enquiries on the main road, I found out that the Kings were scheduled to begin their descent to the school from the almacén at nine o’clock, which meant that they would more likely begin at nine-thirty and arrive at ten.

My wife, twelve-year-old son and I left the house at nine-thirty for the fifteen minute walk to the one-room schoolhouse. We carried flashlights to light our way down the narrow dirt road. Although we know the road well, it is advisable not to walk without light in order to avoid the unpleasant surprise of stepping on a snake – poisonous or not – or a scorpion. My son is too old to believe that the Three Kings were coming to Las Chacras, but he wasn’t adverse to receiving a bag of sweets and witnessing the spectacle. It was a beautiful starlit evening, luckily not too warm.

“Look! There’s the Southern Cross,” Nico exclaimed suddenly as we approached the small clearing marking the entrance to our nearest neighbor’s house.”

“I don’t think so,” my wife said. “It looks too big to be the Cross.”

“Yes, it is,” I said. “The size depends on what time of night you see it.” I wasn’t sure of the accuracy of this affirmation, but didn’t want to disappoint Nico.

At the main road, also unpaved, a good portion of Las Chacras’s population of two hundred and fifty, at last unofficial census, was waiting in front of the brightly lit schoolhouse for the Three Kings to arrive. The children’s excitement and chattering charged the air. We switched off our flashlights and exchanged greetings with those closest to us on the road – and waited. At ten-fifteen Nico said, in English: “Well, are they coming or not?”

At age ten, Nico, born and bred in Argentina, had discovered that he understood English and began to speak it. In two years time he was speaking English fluently, even reads Edgar Allan Poe and The New Yorker. I consider this a noteworthy accomplishment because, although I am an American and my Argentine wife speaks fluent English, we are, after all, in Argentina, and speak Spanish at home. Credit therefore must go to the Beetles ballads Nico loves to listen to on CDs, computer games and dish TV with its Friends and the New York Mets games. When we lived in Buenos Aires we didn’t even have a TV, but here in the country where the nearest cinema is over a hundred miles away and the cultural life of Buenos Aires six hundred, we have become victims of technology. So now Nico speaks only English to me, even when other people are present who don’t understand him, including when shopping, walking down the street of the nearest real town, Villa de las Rosas, or in school when I pick him up. Although this is probably unconscious it is nevertheless impolite. More important, however, is that I don’t like advertising that we are gringos in a place where North Americans are generally considered at least partly responsible for most of the country’s ills. I have nothing to do with the IMF, the World Bank or the CIA and I definitely wouldn’t have voted for Bush, but do they know that?

I reminded Nico that punctuality was not one of Las Chacras’ virtues and told him to be patient. Neither Nico nor I are very patient people, however, and we both walked up and down or around like first fathers in a maternity ward while my wife chatted with some women.

The rumor, having filtered through the crowd, finally reached us. Villa de las Rosas was also sending Three Kings to the schoolhouse. Some smirked, some laughed outright, as did I, and others merely frowned upon hearing the news. This requires some explaining.

Villa de las Rosas is a town of three thousand souls and is an incorporated municipality. Las Chacras, a mile and a half from Las Rosas, is a rural community without any official status. Las Rosas possesses, besides the City Hall, a police station, a post office, a service station, several restaurants, a primary and a high school, and an inn. Las Chacras has none of these, only the one-room school and an almacén-taberna, or grocery store cum bar. The one thing we have in abundance that Las Rosas lacks, in abundance, is water. And this commodity is worth more than all the service stations and city halls this side of the sierras. The water that serves Las Rosas comes from a dam a few miles away, and when the artificial lake is low the water pressure is insufficient. Las Chacras gets its water from mountain springs that would be pure if it weren’t for the animals up high that defecate in the streams. But by the time it gets to us it’s good enough for the residents, who develop antibodies to whatever bacteria is left over. Tourists could have a problem, so we don’t tell them, and usually they don’t. 

There are more voters in Las Rosas, and all are screaming for more water. The mayor and his cohorts therefore think – if you can call it thinking – the obvious: take the water from Las Chacras by extending the pipes from here to Las Rosas. When we heard about this (and around here secrets become public knowledge immediately), our engineer made a study…. Please understand that of the 250 population of Las Chacras around twenty per cent are “outsiders”, that is, refugees from Buenos Aires, and they include an engineer, a lawyer, a writer, as well as various varieties of artisans. In order to be considered a local you have to have lived here at least five generations. Anyway, our engineer made a study and informed us that our water surplus would dwindle to a clap drip if the pipes are extended to Las Rosas, because water will always strive to reach its destination first, then backs up and supplies the lateral users with what’s left. In other words, Las Rosas would consume “our” water and we would get the leftovers – if there were any.   

This, obviously, is unacceptable. So we objected strenuously, to the extent of trying to incorporate an independent village that would have jurisdiction over the water supply. That’s when Villa de las Rosas began to play dirty. The mayor, Dr. Ignacio Circunsición, belongs to the same party as the governor of the Province, Dr. Jorge Washington de la Puta, which means that they play on the same team. The Provincial Government can’t refuse the village incorporation outright, but they can sure as hell sit on the papers as long as they damn please, then lose them so everything has to be done over. Furthermore, the mayor of Las Rosas, in an attempt to divide and conquer, spread the word that the “outsiders” in Las Chacras were leading the locals by their noses. Normally this would be an effective ploy, except that the spring of life, water, is involved, and for this issue locals and outsiders are united. Our locals spread the word that any work on the pipes would need police protection and it would be undone by them at night. They also threatened to block the roads to traffic, burn tires and generally conduct a terrific non-violent resistance campaign, complete with cacerolazos, and if it turned violent it would be the mayor’s fault. The result until now has been an impasse during which we keep the water.

When the word spread that three more kings were on their way from Villa de las Rosas it was immediately evident to all but the densest among us that Mayor Circumcisión was trying to convince us that he was a real nice guy and wouldn’t think of leaving us without water.

Cars passed occasionally so no one paid attention to a beat up red taxi lumbering up the hill, until it stopped in front of the school and the driver got out and put a rock under the rear right wheel because his emergency brake didn’t work. His face was splotched by burnt cork and he wore a long gown that looked like his grandmother’s nightgown. Two more similarly dressed royalty emerged from the taxi, their faces splotched by the red of imbibing. All three placed yellow cardboard crowns on their heads and retrieved bags of uninflated balloons from the interior of the taxi. No one laughed because the children were staring at them in awe.

“The Magi arriving in a fucking taxi?” Nico exclaimed.

“Shut up, kid," I told him, "and watch your language."

From the left, up the mountain, we heard tinny Christmas music. Having been diverted by the decrepit Magi on our right, we hadn’t noticed the procession approaching from the left: three wise kings mounted on Las Chacras camels – horses, as far as I could tell, with bags stuffed with paper to form virtual humps on their backs. Behind them chugged an old Chevy with a loudspeaker on its roof blaring out the music. Meanwhile the taxi Magi were handing out scrawny plastic bags of balloons to the kids while their parents scowled behind them with their arms crossed. I sensed that an interesting close encounter was about to occur. Nico had no intention of accepting a gift from such disreputable monarchs and remained beside me tapping his foot.

When the Las Chacras royal procession reached us, one of the kings tossed a fat package to Nico as they passed on to the school. Nico inspected the transparent bag filled with cookies, wrapped candies and balloons. A label pasted to the package read: Chacras Productions invites you to a free showing of the movie “Shreck” at Clara de Luna tomorrow, 6thof January at 9 p.m. Don’t be misled into thinking that Las Chacras has a movie theater. Clara de Luna is Doctor Luna’s house, where his wife operates a large-screen video venture. Normally they charge one peso for admission. Whether “Shreck” is an appropriate film for Three Kings Day is a question no one – least of all myself – would dare to ask.

The lead Las Chacras king, black-faced, but recognizable as my gardener, Rovindo, spotted the other kings handing out balloons and roared: hijos de puta, and all three galloped the rest of the way to the school hurling blasphemies worthy of next Saturday’s confessional, which their wives would surely make them attend. They pulled their mounts up sharply and Rovindo jumped off and grabbed his counterpart’s crown, threw it to the earth and shouted: impostores! The other two Las Chacras kings followed R’s lead and finally all three crowns were being trampled before the impostors’ trembling feet. Rovindo then told them in no uncertain terms to depart the way they came or they’d get their kingly asses kicked all the way to Villa de las Rosas. They hastily complied by jumping into the taxi, which sped down the hill leaving behind a cloud of dust that covered our kings and left them coughing and cursing.  

“Mamá,” a little girl standing near me asked her mother, “what’s an impostor?”

            “It’s someone who isn’t what he says he is, dear.”

            “They weren’t real kings then, were they?”

            “No dear, they were impostors from Villa de las Rosas.”

            “Are the other kings real?”

            “Of course. They’re from Las Chacras”

            “But I thought they were from the Orient…”

            Things had calmed down by then and the Las Chacras Magi remounted. They rode back on up to the almacen-taberna accompanied by lukewarm applause. Nico had his present so we turned homeward without waiting to hear how the young mother would try to answer her daughter’s awkward query.

            “Look, Dad, It is the Southern Cross,” Nico said. “But it seems smaller now. Why’s that?"

            I thought a moment, then said, “Things aren't always what they seem, son.”

            "You can say that again."

© 2002 Frank Thomas Smith

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