At last it was the day before Christmas. Manuel’s mother smiled as she took the little box of Christmas money down from the shelf. “Do you know how much we have saved, Manuel?” she asked.
“Enough to buy a big fish for two people, I hope,” Manuel replied.
Manuel’s mother smiled, but then the smile quickly faded. “We have enough money to buy a big fish for four people,” she said softly. And Manuel knew she was thinking of his father, who was dead, and of his brother Tomás, who had been away in the army for many months.
Mamá smiled again as she wrapped all the coins in a handkerchief. “Manuel, my son,” she said, “since we only need a fish for two, there will also be enough pesos (money) to buy yourself a Christmas present. You have been wanting a pocketknife, no?”
Manuel’s heart soared at her words. He felt as he did when he chased the gulls in the sunny foam along the beach. “Thank you! Thank you, Mamá!” he shouted. “Feliz Navidad” (Merry Christmas)!”
“Feliz Navidad!” added a familiar voice behind him.
Manuel and his mother both jumped in surprise. “Tomás! Tomás!” shouted Manuel. And he ran to hug his brother.
“How did you manage to come home, mi hijo (my son)?” asked Mamá, her black eyes shining with sudden tears of happiness.
“I have been ill,” answered Tomás. “So I was given a little rest holiday. I have three more days.”
“Manuel, hurry!” said Mamá. “Go down to the central market and bring back our Christmas fish. This is truly a time to be joyful.”
Manuel took the knotted handkerchief from the table and ran down the cool dark hall to the door. Outside, his sandals smacked on the stones—slippety-slap, slippety-slap! Then suddenly Manuel stopped, for all at once he thought, If I buy a fish big enough for three people, there will not be enough pesos left for a knife. And I cannot buy a fish too little, or Tomás will not feel properly welcomed. What am I going to do?
When Manuel got to the marketplace, he had not yet decided. Silently, miserably, he drifted amid the cheerful crowd. He watched people buy bananas at the fruit seller’s, peppers at the vegetable stand, cookies at the bakery stall, and ribbons at the cloth vendor’s shop.
Finally he wandered down a narrow aisle and stood staring into the case where Señor Fernandez kept his pocketknives.
“Hola (hello), Manuel, are you thinking of buying that knife for Christmas?” asked Señor Fernandez. The shopkeeper knew just which one Manuel wanted because he had often let him hold it.
“I don’t know,” replied Manuel. Then he turned to look at the fish seller’s stall that was not far away. An old man was piling gleaming fish of all shapes and sizes in big tubs filled with ice. And as Manuel watched, the old man picked up a big fish from the basket he was unloading.
“Aayy!” he exclaimed in distress. “What kind of a fish is this? It looks like somebody stepped on the tail of this beautiful fish and now it is ruined. Some of its tail is gone. How can I sell a fish like this?”
Manuel knew what he could do. The fish had a good flavor, and it was a much bigger fish than he or his mother had ever planned to buy.
“Señor!” Manuel called as he ran to the fish vendor’s stall. “Señor, do not feed that fish to los gatos (the cats). I will buy it from you. I will give you ten pesos.”
“Ten pesos!” shouted the man. “Why this fish is worth three times that amount!”
“But you just said that it does not have all its tail,” replied Manuel. “And it is getting late. How many people will want a fish with only part of its tail on Christmas Eve?”
“Very well, very well,” grumbled the old man and he pushed the fish into Manuel’s bag.
After buying the fish, Manuel visited other stands in the market, where he bought several more fine things to eat. For once he had made up his mind to spend all the money on a real Christmas feast, he did not stop until it was gone.
The evening breeze had started to come in off the sea by the time he hurried up the sandy lane to his house.
“Manuel!” exclaimed his mother when he came inside. “Where have you been? I was getting worried.”
“Shopping, Mamá,” explained Manuel. “I had to get us a Christmas fish.”
“But what are all these other packages?” asked Tomás.
“You must open them and see,” answered Manuel. Then he watched while Tomás and Mamá, with much laughter and contentment, unwrapped his purchases. And Manuel felt his heart swell within him, like the times he watched the sun sink into the sea.
“Feliz Navidad,” he said softly, to no one in particular. “It is so good to be happy at Christmastime.”