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Work of All Saints

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WORK OF ALL SAINTS

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It seems to me, that love could be labeled poison and we’d drink it anyways.

-Atticus

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PART ONE: THE CLOUD FOREST

 

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The first time Imelda Consequela Flores meets Héctor Rivera, he’s a graceless nothing of a fifteen-year-old boy lurking behind a stack of crates outside the compound wall, he is definitely wearing her mother’s skirts, and he is helplessly in love with someone else.

All of these things are inconvenient, but Imelda is currently only concerned with one of them.

“That’s not yours!” she says sharply.

He startles, stepping backward and knocking into the crates, pinwheeling his hands when the whole stack wobbles precariously. He tries to mask his frantic fumbling by diving into his side satchel and whipping out a fan, ducking his face behind it in a coquettish way, probably — she arches her eyebrows — to hide the scraggly facial hair she bets he pretends is a beard when writing to distant relatives.

Using a disturbing falsetto, he choruses, “Buenas tardes, señorita. What ever do you mean?”

She jabs her finger at the skirts swinging around his boots, already carelessly darkened with dust. “Those are my mother’s!”

“You are mistaken, these are mine, I am — “

Imelda lets out a rude noise. “I have been wringing out those skirts since the moment I was big enough to reach the crank. You think I wouldn’t recognize them? They’ve been missing from our line for hours, we’ve been going gate to gate — or did you think us so rich we simply wouldn’t notice?”

The louder her voice gets, the more his eyes widen.

“I — uh —“

“No,” Imelda finishes for him. “I don’t suppose you thought about it at all, you stinking thief!”

“Shhh!”

Next she knows, he’s got her by the arm, hauling her down behind the crates.

You — !” she spits, bracing herself against the brick and grabbing his hand by the middle finger, yanking it nearly all the way to his wrist so that he has to contort to relieve the pressure. He ”yipe!”s in a satisfying way, but releases her.

Taking a smart step backwards, she fixes him with a scowl. Does he have any idea how unpleasant it is to be dragged around like that?

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he whispers rapidly, trying to shake his hand out. “I’m not a thief, I swear to you, I was only borrowing them! I was going to return them, no harm done!”

Incredulously, she looks him up and down, head to toe.

“Like that?”

He looks too, uncomprehending. “Sí?”

“We washed them,” she stresses. “That’s why they were drying, and you would bring them back in worse condition than you found them? That makes twice the work for us! That’s insulting!”

“I’m —“ His mouth works fishily. “Wait, you would … rather I steal them?”

“Yes! — No! Arrgh!” She pinches the bridge of her nose, then fans her fingers open to glare at him through them. He peeks back at her with uncertainty. Forgotten, the fan in his hand sinks down — that is black lace, entirely inappropriate, what is he thinking — and the square collar of his blouse sags loosely over his chest, showing Imelda a length of collarbone and a pebble path of freckles trailing after one larger one on his neck like ducklings. Or maybe that’s a mole. She jerks her eyes up.

Something hot grips her insides as it occurs to her she’s shouting at a stranger outside the gates of her own family compound, without her brothers or uncle there to run interference.

Just as quickly, she shakes it off. She is past her quince años, she can shout at strangers if she wants. Just because it’s the first time she’s done it doesn’t mean it’s wrong, and how is she supposed to get better at it if she doesn’t practice?

She lowers her hand. “Why are you in my mother’s skirts?”

The expression on his face freezes in place.

“Ah! That’s actually a funny story,” he says brightly, in the way people do when they mean the opposite. “I’m glad you asked.”

He tucks the fan away and shifts his weight, preparing to bolt.

Still wearing her mother’s clothes.

“All right,” she says, and stands up, deliberately holding her skirts over her boots so the hem doesn’t brush the ground. Upright, she shakes them out, takes a deep breath, and steps around the stack of crates.

Tío!” she bellows. “Tío —“

“Hey, hey — hey, no — !“

He surges after her and plants himself in her path, hands held up placatingly. He does not, she notes with satisfaction, attempt to grab her again. “All right, all right, listen. I — I need to sneak into the convent.”

Imelda stares.

Tío!” she shouts, louder.

Sshhh, stop!” he makes a frantic gesture. “Not like that! It’s for my friend. Listen, one of the new initiates has something of his that he really needs back, but she won’t see him and now they … kind of won’t even let him go near the building, so I’d said I’d do it.”

“In a dress,” Imelda says doubtfully.

“I didn’t tell him that, but I wasn’t going to break into a house full of young initiates dressed like a man, God have mercy,” he crosses himself, then admits, “actually, if I tried it my mother would strike me down faster than anyone else, may God keep her soul. So, yes, my plan was to … pretend to be a woman, sneak in, take back my friend’s belongings, sneak out, and return your mother’s skirts to their line and go home, no harm done!”

He spreads his hands and offers her a smile that seems to be entirely made of teeth. She assumes he thinks it’s winsome.

Imelda folds her arms.

“With that?” She flicks an unimpressed finger in the direction of his chin.

“I am an exceptionally ugly girl,” he says unselfconsciously. “Why do you think I’m trying to join a convent?”

Her eyebrows come down. “Ach,” she says in disgust. “God the Judge and Jury would be less judgmental than you. So tell me, were you going to ‘borrow’ a razor while you were ‘borrowing’ everything else?”

He had absolutely no intention of doing anything to those six or seven scraggly hairs he thinks is a beard, and she can pinpoint the exact moment his life flashes in front of his eyes. He takes a step back, hand flying to shield his chin like he thinks maybe she’s got a razor hidden somewhere in her blouse and she is going to do the deed the second he lets his guard down.

Tamping down a smile, she says, “Besides, initiates must give up all personal belongings before entering the religious life.” Imelda herself worked too hard at battering against and wheedling with her cousins to get the worldly possessions she has, and she wants to enjoy them for longer, no matter how her uncle hints at her mother. “What makes you so sure this nun even has your friend’s … whatever?”

Still eyeing her suspiciously, he takes a moment to process her question.

“It wouldn’t be hard to hide them, they’re letters.” A beat. He steals a look at her, then admits, “Love letters.”

“Ach,” Imelda says again. “Why do little boys always feel the need to write that embarrassment down? And then think we want to hear it?”

As soon as the words are out of her mouth, she remembers she’s not with her cousins, all of whom have a dozen opinions on their suitors ranging from “you could do better” to “you could really do better” (the worst part, of course, is that they can’t,) and are used to her asking those questions, just as they’re used to brushing those questions off with a condescending “you’ll understand someday, prima.”

She cuts a quick look in his direction, expecting to find him puffed up and offended. But all he does is give her a startled smile, eyebrows vaulted high on his forehead.

“Are you an expert in love letters then, señorita?” he asks her.

Imelda rolls her eyes. “More than your friend, apparently. Or you, if you think your plan is actually going to work. Why did you agree to take such a risk — just because he made a stupid mistake?”

And why does my family — and our clothesline — have to get dragged into it, too?

“He’s my friend,” is all he says, like that’s an answer.

A sudden commotion from inside the compound makes them both press into the shadow of the wall. Imelda turns her head towards it, recognizing her uncle’s voice, always so pompously assured it had the attention of everyone in the vicinity no matter what it had to say. When it comes close enough to be distinct, it loudly wonders why one woman’s stained old dishwater clothes could cause so much drama, there was more important work to be done, and her aunt’s voice answers in its typical consoling way.

Face burning, she whips her head back around.

The thief in question surprises her, suddenly grabbing tight hold of her hand.

“You could help me!” he breathes. She scoffs and tugs her hand free, and he steps in close, insisting, “No, I’m serious! I could pull it off if I had your help, and that way you could be sure I get your mother’s skirts to their line — I’ll even wash them, God as my witness, they’ll be like new. Look, there isn’t even a smudge of dirt on you, you could teach me to do that, you could teach me to pass long enough for me to be in and out without embarrassing anyone! It’ll be fun, it’ll work out, please?”

He’s talking very fast. Imelda finds herself staring — his eager pointed face, bright eyes, skirts held up off his boots in the exact manner she had just done.

“You are hopeless,” she says in wonder.

She means it in so many different ways, and so she’s not expecting it, the way he meets her eyes — and softens all at once. He looks down at his feet and then back up at her.

“Yes,” he admits, very quiet, and this, she thinks, is the truest thing he’s told her yet. “I am. Please, señorita, will you help me?”

She looks back at him, and feels it: something inside of her, struck, like listening to someone whistle to themselves down on the street, like the moment you recognize the song inside all those different notes put together.

“Imelda,” she hears herself say.

He blinks. “Eh?”

“Imelda,” she says. “That’s my name.”

“Oh.” A smile takes hold of his mouth, tugging up one corner of it like it’s got it on a hook. “I’m Héctor. Rivera. Héctor Rivera. Ah,” he pulls at his blouse, then gestures up the wall. “Your family? Primer apellido?”

“Consequela.”

His eyebrows hike. “Truly?”

“And I have heard every joke God and the saints could think of, so don’t even go there,” she answers, long-suffering. Then, before she can change her mind, she grabs an empty crate from the top of the stack and shoves it into his arms. “Come on,” she says briskly, as he fumbles for a grip and nearly showers her mother’s skirts in more dirt. “We’re going to need hats.”

“Hats,” he agrees. Then, “Wait, what.”

 

*

 

Padre Luis comes to the gate still in his gardening gloves.

“Imelda?” He peeks through the slats, trying to catching a glimpse of her face. “Is that you? Little girl, where’s your papá?”

“Buenas noches, Padre,” Imelda says cheerfully. She hefts up the crate so he can see it. “Donations for the initiates, from Casa Consequela?”

“Well, yes, of course.” With a click, he unlatches the gate and swings it open so they can step through. He blinks at her roundly. “It’s rather late.”

“Lucky you were out trimming roses by moonlight, then.”

“Er,” he looks down at his gloves, sticky with earth, and quickly sheds them, tucking them through the rope belt that holds up his dark brown robes. Most priests Imelda’s met have taken to the new change in dress without much complaint, but not Padre Luis: he cannot imagine anything in this world less holy than black slacks and an ironed shirt, honestly. He pats at his breast pocket, looking for his glasses, but he never wears them when he’s working in the garden — the sweat makes them slide right off the end of his nose, no matter how long he waits in the hope the humidity from the day cools into something bearable. He squints at Héctor, who tugs the brim of his bonnet further down his forehead and stares determinedly at the priest’s sandals. “Hello, señorita … ?”

“Oh, you know my prima Maria,” Imelda says dismissively, and at Héctor’s dainty curtsey, Padre Luis makes an agreeable noise. Everyone has a cousin named Maria, and he wouldn’t want to be insulting, now would he? “Initiates’ quarters are that way?”

He gives himself a shake, glancing at the crate and the white cloth drawn purposefully over it. “Yes, yes. What is it —“

“Oh, ladies’ things,” Imelda says, already walking away. “We’ll be right back, Padre, thank you!”

“Right, okay,” says Padre Luis helplessly.

Héctor follows her past the main rectory, dogging her steps as they skirt around the rose garden, the new cuttings sticking straight up out of the soil like kitten’s tails. They pause outside the open door to listen, and Imelda lifts her eyebrows at the sound of singing drifting out to them from the small chapel with its single stained glass window. That’s where the nuns will be this time of evening. They have a very strict routine. Every step of the routine has a Latin name, which is how you know it’s serious.

“This way,” she whispers to Héctor.

They steal around to the back of the building. It doesn’t take long to find a window that’s been propped open by the initiates, who also probably have the gaps in the nuns’ routine timed to the minute.

“So what’s the plan?” Héctor asks, huddling down beside her after she thunks the crate down. “I go in? You go in? Do you need a boost? What about a distraction, should I … ?“

Imelda looks at him.

He does his very best to look prepared, even while wearing a bonnet of her aunt’s that went out of fashion thirty years ago. If nothing else, at least he’s holding his skirts out of the way. Her mother’s skirts. Whatever.

“I’m very good at distractions,” he promises.

She rolls her eyes, then cups her hands around her mouth.

“Psst! Hey, Bernice!”

Héctor jolts like she stuck him with a pin, and waves his hands at her frantically.

“What are you doing!” he hisses. “Don’t call her over here!”

A silhouette appears in the window, and he flattens himself up against the wall with a frog-like croak.

“Imelda? The Consequelas’ Imelda?” says the girl poking her face into the gap between window and frame. Her hair is neatly tucked underneath a white cap, and she pushes her spectacles up her nose to peer down at her.

Imelda shows teeth. “Hola, Deremé, can you get Bernice for me?”

“Sí,” and Deremé disappears again. Like Imelda, she’s the youngest of an entire cluster of cousins, and her reasons for taking her vows, while very poetically presented to her father and to the Mother Superior, amounted basically to, “at least I know in God’s house nobody tolerates me just because it’s nice to always have someone on hand to criticize. At least God’s love comes with no conditions, as a family should.” Personally, Imelda believes Deremé would have parted with something considerably more vital than her marriage prospects and personal belongings just for some peace and quiet.

Another girl takes her place.

“That’s Sister Evalina to you, little miss horse-face,” Bernice hands down to her, in a voice as thick as a slab of butter. “What do you want?”

“You’re an initiate, you’re no nun yet,” Imelda replies primly. “I need a favor.”

“What?”

“I need the love letters from Ernesto da la Cruz.”

Héctor makes another squashed-sounding noise.

“No,” says Bernice immediately.

“Why not?” Imelda spreads her hands. “They’re no use to you now.”

“They are my collateral. My blackmail. I give those up, what do I have over him?”

Héctor is doing a very good job of blending seamlessly into the wall behind him, gulping at her in horror, but this makes him blink.

“I thought she kept them because she was sentimental,” he remarks, too low to be heard from the window, and Imelda shoots him an are you kidding me? look.

“You can’t be that stupid,” she says back, and then lilts her voice up persuasively. “Look, Bernice, I’ll trade you a cigarette.”

The silhouette folds her arms and “hmph”s.

“We’re not that desperate for smokes here — “

“— one,” Imelda interrupts. “For each letter.”

A pause.

Then the window cracks open another inch further, far enough for a hand to slip out, open-palmed.

Imelda looks at Héctor expectantly.

“What?” he says after a beat. And then, pressing his hand indignantly to his embroidered collar, “Wait, what makes you think I have any smokes?”

She waggles her fingers in wordless demand.

Another beat, and then he sighs and shifts his skirts around to — she peeks, because he’s there and she can, but he’s wearing pants underneath, their cuffs tightly rolled to the knee so as not to show. He digs a cigarette case out of his pocket and passes it to her. She flicks it open with a thumbnail, pries one out from underneath its band, and passes it up to Bernice.

In short order, she soon has six letters in trade.

“Thank you, Sister Evalina,” Imelda says sweetly. “Are we good?”

“We’re good,” Bernice agrees, with satisfaction. “Thanks for these. They’ll last longer than he did, probably.”

Héctor chokes.

Smirking, Imelda hands him the letters and picks the crate up again as the window creaks shut. She rolls up the cloth that had been their decoy donation, and steps back onto the path to the front gate. Héctor follows, a little dazedly.

She calls good night to Padre Luis, letting the gate latch shut behind them.

When she turns around, Héctor’s tugging his bonnet loose and looking at her with something open and astonished in his eyes.

“What?” Imelda says.

“Imelda Consequela, you are a wonder,” he tells her, with all apparent sincerity.

Imelda squirms, pleased and trying very hard not to show it.

“Well, I would hope so,” she says briskly. “Now come on, you’ve got laundry to do and then I’m going to need you to prove how good your distractions are so I can sneak back into my own home.”

 

*

 

There are four things you need to know about Imelda Rivera before we begin:

1. She’s Oaxacan, down to her very bones and marrow, and as such has always kept three portraits up side-by-side in the main room of every place she’s ever lived. The center portrait is the Madonna in blue, the Christ child benevolently perched on her knee — it had been a present from her father to her mother, commissioned from a passing painter to christen their wedding, and it was the first thing they owned that was truly theirs. The wood’s been worn in the corners from being mounted and taken down so many times, and if you tip it, you can just make out the gold leaf haloing the icons’ heads: it had been her favorite detail as a child. The second is of Benito Juárez, the one true president of Mexico. The third is of her family, in whatever variation that currently took: her uncle’s household with her shoved up on the very end like the last pencil added to the box; herself, Héctor, and Ernesto, blurred because they’d been laughing, all of them in costume, all of them with their arms around each other; herself and Coco, the rest torn away; Casa Rivera, shoemakers, standing proudly underneath the sign for their shop.

2. Imelda’s mother met her father when he came down to los pueblos negros in Veracruz to photograph the churches, all with their nativity scenes out on display. She dropped the Star of Bethlehem on him. All her life, Imelda’s been told she and her brothers are their father in miniature. She was just a baby when they fell on their uncle’s charity, a fact he has never let them forget, not once.

3. The lowest point of her life is the summer of 1923. Coco is nearly five, and Ernesto de la Cruz’s voice comes on the radio.

4. She outlives him by nearly thirty years. At seventy, her back is straight, her teeth are still good, her hair uniformly black except for a persistent skunk’s streak of white, and the less mentioned about her bowels in polite company, the better, though woe betide anyone cramped in tight quarters with her after she’d had her beans. She’s in the showers at the community center following her morning swim (half-hour free swim, once the synchronized swimming team clear the pool.) She soaps up her armpits, and feels a lump move.

 

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The mountain town of San Juan Albán is the first in its region to finish construction on its own train station, making it the third altogether in Oaxaca.

The cathedral’s still the bigger building, as is only right, and every street in town winds up running from one to the other.

Coming in from below, it looks deceptively small; stubbornly barnacled to the northern slope of Sierra Juárez, its roads switch-backing down towards the valley below and its buildings all painted bright candy colors, sticking out of the misty mountainside like crooked rows of teeth. The people who live there pride themselves on being as sticky as its pine sap, as colorful as its construction. Imelda’s lived here all her life.

It lacks the tropical heat of the south, and the yellowing, dry baked quality of the central valleys, and Imelda’s uncle fancies himself the richest man in town, as everyone must come to him for the horses and donkeys needed to cross the mountain in either direction, coming to or from the station. The walls of Casa Consequela come right up against the station yard, so arriving trains pour steam over the courtyard, startling birds into flight with the engines’ incessant screaming. Imelda, hauling buckets to the stables, stops to watch them flash by overhead, and thinks that trains make everything move: not just soldiers or prisoners, food or money, but all of God’ creation, too, hastening to get out of their way.

In addition to travelers, the San Juan Albán trains take lumber north into Puebla, west into Veracruz, and cost President Díaz a pretty penny to build as tunnels had to be blasted through solid rock where there was no other option.

The first time she heard this, still small enough that she could fit into the laundry basket as her mother and aunties playfully tossed clothes down on top of her, Imelda had been astonished.

“That sounds dangerous!” she’d said in a piping voice.

That is Díaz’s style,” her mother told her, suddenly serious. “We fought him every step of the way, of course.”

Imelda perked up. “We did?”

With a lot of clucking tongues, the aunties shushed them both, reminding them that the president is Oaxaca’s son and he’s done wonders for Mexico, but behind their backs Imelda’s mother crossed her eyes at her. She does that when she wants Imelda to know her aunts are wrong, but they shouldn’t say that to their faces. Imelda, incapable of that even then, spent the next two weeks playing rebel, roping her brothers into dastardly plots to sabotage Díaz’s railroad, that crusty old sell-out. He forgot about Oaxaca as soon as he got his fancy feathered hat, but Oaxaca didn’t forget about him.

At their age, “sabotage” mostly just involved climbing the walls and trying to lob eggs at something crucial on the tracks, resulting in nothing more than an irate conductor and a lot of glaring at Imelda’s unrepentant mother over the washing.

(Imelda’s mother was not born in Oaxaca. Everyone forgets this until suddenly they remember it all at once.)

But San Juan Albán’s biggest claim to fame is its music master.

His full name is very long, full of mothers and fathers and places, so everyone affectionately refers to him as Papá Figaro.

He studied with the maestros in Europe — it’s the first thing anyone learns about him, because he never shuts up about it — and he even met the Pope once, he said, although he found the man personally distasteful and resolved to return to Mexico as soon as he could, where at least you could count on a person to be civilized.

(Later, in the Land of the Dead, a familiar face comes to the shop for a pair of loafers and once the exclamations are over, the regular pleasantries exchanged — cancer, she tells him, and he answers with, first time I ever saw a toaster I stuck a fork in it, heart attack with a side of extra crispy, and now he’s el santo to the sound of the rain falling on the ocean as the Pacific breaks upon the southern lagoons, and his alebrije is a songbird with shark fins, which of course leads to the both of them spending a good fifteen minutes outside admiring Pepita, something Imelda never gets tired of — she’ll ask him if he ever got to fight that Pope for being uncivilized swine. He shows her a full set of teeth and admits that actually, he’s never set foot outside the Sierra Madres. He read a book about Europe once and fudged the rest from there. “Confidence, Señora Rivera,” he confides to her with a wink, and she smiles in spite of herself and agrees, “Confidence, Papá.”)

Regardless, he runs a successful music school out of his workshop, where it becomes something of a point of pride for families to have their sons (and daughters, too, if you were the type) enrolled. Never one to be beat, Imelda’s uncle made sure two of his own sons attended.

“The maestro did something to his practice room,” her primo tells her. “It’s built special, you know, so that the — the — ”

“Acoustics,” provides the other.

“— yeah, that, so that when we’re all playing and we’re note-perfect, it sounds amazing.”

“What,” she fires back, a little too sharply, “do you all fart in unison, too?”

And her cousins snort, and that’s the last she hears about that.

Imelda will never know what the acoustics do: music school is not in the cards for her, not an expense like the maestro’s. Not for Don Consequela’s youngest, most throw-away niece. Besides, she gets acoustics in the cathedral, it’ll have to do.

 

*

 

If you’re smart, and there’s a war on, you’ll divide your assets. Send one child to the mountains to learn a trade, keep one at home, so if you lose the one at home you’ve still got the spare.

It’s enough to keep Papá Figaro in business, anyway.

 

*

 

When they heard about the music master in the mountains, the nuns in Santa Cecilia took up a collection for one of their orphans to go, and perhaps it was the flattery of getting such an applicant, but Papá Figaro accepted sight unseen. He got a deal — two for the tuition of one when Ernesto de la Cruz and Héctor Rivera showed up with their elbows linked, both claiming to be that orphan.

“But he took us,” Héctor points out.

“Because we are just that good,” Ernesto agrees, and kisses his fingertips in imitation of the maestro. “He knew talent when he heard it!”

“More likely, he was too stingy to want to spend money sending one of you back,” Imelda says, and they both clutch their hearts, feigning wounded.

 

*

 

The week following her break-in at the convent, Imelda’s in the courtyard sharpening knives and nippers — doing so in the stables makes the horses rustle around anxiously and try to hide all of their feet at once — with the sun a welcome warmth on her back, when a pebble comes skittering across the cobbles to her, knocking up against her boot.

Imelda spares it a bemused look, then glances up.

Her mouth twists up, unbidden, and she puts the sharpener aside and stands. The knife she’d been working on goes into its sheath tied into her apron. She crosses the courtyard to the gate.

“Well, now,” she says, “is this what you look like in pants?”

To her absolute delight, Héctor Rivera ducks his head at her, the tops of his ears going red.

“I — uh, yes — I wanted to thank you,” he fumbles, “for your help.”

She smiles. “Your friend is squared away, then? Letters burned, embarrassment forgotten?”

“Yes. I don’t think he’ll try wooing anyone that way again.”

“It doesn’t sound like women are his strong suit,” Imelda remarks, and Héctor says, “it really isn’t,” in a tone she recognizes as significant even if she couldn’t tell you why.

They look at each other, then look away. The gate to Casa Consequela is wrought iron, tall, twisted and flared at the top — her uncle had wanted the most impressive gate on the block. Their hacienda itself is modest, but the gate would the the first thing any visitor saw coming or going. Imelda traces a bar with her finger, and Héctor studies bar and finger both. The silence stretches.

He’s got a loose clasp, she notices, where the metal’s gone skewed on his suspenders. Not a difficult fix, if you’ve got the right tool.

“Señorita, I have to ask,” Héctor says in a rush, “but who was that who was singing just now?”

“I — what?”

“Just now, as I was coming up the path. Are they part of your household?”

“Um.” Imelda doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “Well, I was singing, but I don’t know if it was me you heard — we all sing a lot, if you’re in this family and can’t carry a tune, then you might as well —“

“Was it you singing ‘Gloria’?”

“Yes, but …”

She doesn’t know what to do with the look he gives her then, astonishment mixed with appreciation, both unfeigned. It makes Imelda feel seen, which isn’t something she has a lot of experience with.

If this were a mariachi whistling at her skirts, she’d have a dozen cutting responses (all of them as hand-me-down from her primas as her clothes themselves,) but this is new.

“How come you’ve never done the responsorial?” he asks. She must still look confused, because he adds, “In Mass?”

“No, I know what you meant. Like I said — all Consequelas sing. I have a dozen cousins who lead instead of me.”

“God’s loss,” Héctor says, and, while she’s still blinking, “can you read music?”

She scowls.

“Read it, write it, shove it up your — “

“Thank you, yes,” and he leans in. His eyes up close are very bright, and not quite uniformly the same color. Imelda doesn’t know what to do with this information. “Would you sing with us sometime? My friend and I?”

“In the plaza?” Imelda says doubtfully. “I don’t think that would be allowed.”

“Not — “

She folds her arms. “I didn’t know you were a singer. How come I haven’t seen you doing the responsorials?”

“Because it’s always Consequelas,” he replies, dry. “The ones that aren’t you, apparently. Anyway, I’m a student with the maestro —“ oh! Well, that explains the facial hair. “— And he says —”

A voice suddenly shouts across the courtyard.

Eh! Prima, is there someone at the gate?”

Without thought, Imelda shoves her hand through the bars and pushes Héctor aside, out of sight.

“No, Ines,” she shouts back, spinning around and putting her back up against the gate. “Just a mangy cat.”

“Ay, well, where are my nibblers? And my knife?”

“Still working on them!”

Her cousin sucks at her teeth in annoyance, but doesn’t say anything else, just stands there and beats the strawdust and hoof shavings off her gloves, then turns around and ducks back into the stables.

“It was just me, you could have told her that,” Héctor points out, rubbing his elbow where he’d banged it on the stone.

Imelda turns her head to give him an exasperated look.

“Crouching at the gate to whisper with me like an illicit suitor?” she asks, and sees at once that this, this thing she had not be unaware of the entire time they’d been talking, hadn’t even occurred to him. “They’d chase you off and then I’d never get to decide if I wanted to meet your friend and see if what you’ve got is good enough for me to sing.”

And Héctor stands up straight and says, “hey,” but in a way that isn’t really insulted at all.

 

*

 

There’s only one thing for it.

Her brothers’ room is right above the kitchens; all the rooms in Casa Consequela are small, as they’d all been larger rooms that were halved and then halved again as her uncle’s family grew, and the compound had never been big to begin with (by hacienda standards, anyway,) allowing more space for the stables.

Some of Imelda’s first memories are of this kitchen, wobbling from auntie to auntie and back to her mother as they bent over their metates, the heavy square stones for grinding corn into flour. You could spend all day over a metate and still not make enough masa to meet the demand. The kitchen’s one of the few places that hasn’t changed since she was a child; metates on the floor, shallow clay cazuelas on the table, and whatever vegetables made it through the various blockades to get to market mashed together with chilies and roasting in the ovens.

Imelda dodges around her aunts and goes up the narrow staircase behind the pantry, rehearsing in her head — and curses as her boot goes through something soft.

She lifts her heel and frowns at the squashed black hat that had, moments ago, been more convincingly hat-shaped.

“Ay,” she complains, and picks it up.

Up the stairs, she pounds on her brothers’ door, and opens it at the responding shout, only remembering to duck in time.

“Imelda!” says her brother Óscar.

“Little sister, it’s been so long!” says her brother Felipe.

“Not long enough,” Imelda retorts, since she’d seen them at breakfast, and, thrusting the hat out, “here, this is yours.”

They step in close, their eyebrows beetling together in matching consternation. At seventeen, her brothers are already taller than the rest of the family, but in a way that the rest of them haven’t caught up to yet, bones and skin disagreeing on how fast the other should be growing, the way glue looks when it’s stretched. Imelda misses being taller than them, when they came up to her shoulders and no one believed them when they insisted they were older — and that was only a year ago.

“What is this?” Óscar asks.

“I think it’s a hat,” Felipe responds.

“It was a hat.”

“Then it’s yours.”

“No, it’s yours.”

“It’s mine,” Óscar agrees, and while they take turns shoving their heads into it to try to unflatten it, Imelda looks around.

The room right above the kitchen is always the hottest, no matter the time of year, so even though they’ve got their sleeves rolled and their pants hiked to their knees, the room smells damp and moldy as any sweaty boy, and when they ran out of space they started putting stuff on the ceiling. Right now they’ve got what seems like a hundred spinning mobiles, like the kind you hang over a crib — although probably it’s just the movement that makes it seem like that many. The one over the door, the one she’d almost hit her head on, is all little horses, prancing in a circle.

“Thank you, Imelda,” Óscar says.

Felipe looks at his brother, and nods solemnly. “We don’t think it can be saved.”

“We’ll say the proper rites.”

“And bury it.”

Imelda takes a more practical approach. “Well, where’s the other one? Leave it on the stairs and I’ll stomp that one flat too. You can’t just have one hat.”

It says something about the twins that they both scratch their chins and contemplate this.

“Tía Consequela won’t buy you new ones,” Imelda feels the need to shut down that line of thought for their own good. “Not when you’ve cost her new pants this year already.”

“But we can’t have bare heads in church any more than we can have bare ankles,” Felipe says reasonably.

Imelda fans her hand open, like, try it at your own risk.

Then she switches tracks.

“Have you gone to see the engineer recently?”

Her brothers blink, then exchange a furtive look.

“We might have stopped —“

“— he was giving a lecture outside the cathedral as we were taking up a delivery right before they all went in for vespers, it seemed rude not to —“

“— we lost track of time. Is … everyone very mad?”

Is their uncle mad, they mean.

Imelda doesn’t envy them. Sometimes it’s almost a comfort, knowing that as the youngest girl she’s already been written off as worthless to the household, but her brothers, being older and more importantly, boys, still have the capacity to be a disappointment and they know it.

But no matter what they do, Óscar and Felipe seem destined to be the odd thumbs of the family — skinny, bookish, and entirely uninterested in any aspect of the horsemanship necessary to be a proper Consequela. Their excellent singing voices are their only saving grace. Their other option, Imelda knows, is to join Carranza’s army of constitutionalists (her uncle won’t hear of those villains Villa or Zapata, the strategic masterminds he’d been praising only a few years ago, and any other armies aren’t even worth note, so it would have to be Carranza.) Their recruiters come in on the trains all the time, and every army is so low on bodies they’ll probably take even Óscar and Felipe at this point.

Soldiering will kill them, without a doubt, but Imelda’s not so sure staying at home won’t, either.

“No,” she says reassuringly. “He doesn’t know. But I need to go to the plaza, so you have to take me. We can both get what we want — when is the next lecture?”

In unison, they brighten.

 

*

 

The engineer is a young man from Zacatlán, a mountain town in Puebla not unlike their own in that it’s wet, foggy, and difficult to get to on foot most of the year. But there, they’ve managed to harness their rushing rapids with a series of small dams and sluices to make them more amenable to use. He wants the mayor of San Juan Albán to hire him to do something similar here, too, because it’s either this or build dams for the army generals, and it’s not the engineers they name monuments for during wartime.

In the meantime, he meets out in front of the church to give technical lectures to interested parties.

Imelda likes him well enough — he’s got a bushy mustache that he’s diligent about grooming that almost, but not quite, hides his weak chin, and she’d much rather listen to him than another herald on horseback delivering news of some new massacre. More importantly, he makes Óscar and Felipe starry-eyed, absent-minded, patting down their jackets for pen and paper and entirely uninterested in what their little sister is doing.

“Come get me when he’s done,” Imelda tells them, letting Felipe reach out to nudge her braided crown a little to the left with his usual contemplative squint, and then, “ach!” and swats them away when Óscar tries to push it back.

“Where will you be?”

Imelda points. “Over there.”

The plaza where the engineer gives his lectures is also where the mariachis meet up to hedge bets and duke out territories for market.

Most days, you can find a flock of them out preening around the gazebo like birds in a tree, tuning guitars, polishing trumpets, bickering over whose turn it was for fresh strings and holding mouthpieces up to the sunlight, grimacing. Imelda’s never had a reason to go over there — at a certain point, you cross over some invisible boundary and Imelda’s whole life has been making sure she doesn’t do that. She approaches slowly.

She must linger a little too long, because one of the boys in the gazebo looks up and spots her.

“Ey, señorita!” he calls. “You got a light?”

“A light?” Imelda says blankly — the first thing she thinks is maybe he needs money to take an offering candle into the church, but then he waggles his lips so that the cigarette stuck between them flops up and down.

Oh, that kind of light.

Imelda props her hand on her hip and gestures around at all the other musicians. She can count four lit cigarettes just from right here.

“What,” she goes. “Your amigos all run out at once, or do they just not like you?”

A laugh goes up around him, but he’s not rattled.

“It’s much better luck if it’s a pretty girl doing the … lighting, you know.” This time, it’s his eyebrows that do the wagging.

Imelda frowns. That sounds like innuendo. Gross.

Another boy with a trumpet interjects, “Ay, mira, mira, don’t let him take you for anything.”

“I wasn’t — “ Imelda starts, because she’s so not in danger of being taken in by a mariachi that it’s not even funny, and especially not this one. In San Juan Albán, a man can step off a train with his army lapels torn off his jacket and lounge around until the next recruiter comes through with a better price — you develop an eye for deserters and migrants, around here.

Now, though, she’s got the other musicians’ attention.

“What’s she looking for?” asks Ava in her long beaded skirt.

“I — “

The first mariachi plucks his cigarette from his lips. “What else but a handsome mariachi, of course!”

“That probably means she’s looking for Ernesto,” grouses an older man perched on top of his guitar case, inspecting the slimy skid-marks on the bottom of his boots; in the damp climate, the stones in the plaza pick up a green mossy film without trying.

Imelda tries again. “Listen — “

“A handsome mariachi?” another voice pipes up. “She must be looking for me!”

The crowd of smoke and patched-up charro jackets parts, and Héctor Rivera — easily the smallest and skinniest of them all — draws himself up and beams at her.

Imelda had known, when it was just the two of them trying to come up with a plan, that he was her age or maybe younger, but she hadn’t really processed what that meant. Now that she’s got him where there’s other people to compare him to, she suddenly sees the fifteen-year-old in his stature, the prominence of that very large, very aquiline nose, those ears you could carry a jug with. Her heart pulps up, all at once, without warning.

It feels, alarmingly, almost like affection.

Stop that, she tells it, baffled.

But then Héctor kicks one ankle over the other and strikes a pose, and the feeling only gets worse.

“Ach!” she says in disgust, and the mariachi all laugh.

Pecking order firmly reestablished, they drift back to what they were doing, and Héctor dodges in between them and approaches her, still smiling.

“You came,” he says. “You found a chaperone?”

“My brothers,” Imelda answers, gesturing.

His eyebrows pop up. “More than one? How many pairs of eyes watching you does your family think you need?”

“If they knew, then I wouldn’t be very good at whatever it is I shouldn’t be doing, now would I?” she points out. Then, “no, they’re twins. Óscar and Felipe. I have until the end of the lecture.”

He grins. “Then you better come meet Ernesto.”

 

*

 

Based on what she already knew — that he’s a music student at Papá Figaro’s, that he took one look at Bernice of all people and thought, sure, I’ve got this, that Héctor Rivera loves him more than Imelda sees herself ever loving anyone — Imelda assumed that Ernesto de la Cruz would be Héctor’s age, some other skinny snaggle-toothed wannabe musician who’s nothing but bones with skin hastily thrown on top. Ill-fitting. Propelled by bursts of boastful hot air and not much else.

What she gets is … not that.

“Ah,” she says, faintly.

Ernesto de la Cruz looks right back at her.

“Ah,” he echoes, with a look on his face that tells her she, too, is the last thing he was expecting to see.

 

*

 

For as long as there’s been a business to run, her tío Consequela has made their household a musical one.

“There are a number of ways to foster cohesiveness and cooperation when your family is also your livelihood,” she overheard him saying once, as pompous as a pipe organ, while she kept her head down and traced the dug-in grooves in the wood of the pew with her fingernail. “But, caballeros,” he gestured around, “music encourages harmony, you see? And nothing’s more important than a harmonious household.”

“True, true,” the other men had allowed, deferential.

“Figaro’s good at what he does, but he got that idea from me, you know.”

Imelda dug her nail in particularly hard.

In 1897, feeling generous from the wedding toasts and the mezcal, the head of the Consequela household — whom people called “Don” to his face at his insistence, and called “Señor Consequela” behind his back, so that you knew they thought him stuck-up and self-important — made a vow to his youngest brother Mariano that he would support his new wife in the event of his untimely death, and had been unpleasantly surprised to have that cheque cashed barely three years later, when Imelda’s mother appeared at his gate with her children in tow, dressed in mourning colors. Imelda is her only daughter, lives with her twin brothers surrounded by her hoard of cousins, and it’s funny how even though most of them have children of their own she is still always somehow treated like the youngest.

By the time she’s old enough for it, the good stuff is already hand-me-down and twice-worn, from the good swears to the interesting experiences and even the rebellions, so Imelda grows up rough and overdone like something kicked across a courtyard too many times.

And she’s used to singing, getting pulled into rounds with her uncles while they break in new horses, with her cousins who want her help feeding the pack mules, with her aunts and their rolled-up sleeves with masa caught in the creases, squeezing limes to toast with chapulines. All the old folk songs — Imelda has them pressed between the pages of her heart like flowers in a hymnal.

She never thought of it as anything special.

Not until she sees the dawning of a slow, astonished smile on Héctor Rivera’s face, and the faint widening of Ernesto’s eyes behind him.

Oh, she thinks.

That look — that’s for me.

And she takes a breath and plunges into the next verse, with confidence.

 

*

 

And it’s not that she’s never had friends before — there are her cousins, who don’t really count but something should be said for how hard it is to maintain a friendship among family sometimes. There are girls she’ll gravitate to in the choir loft, that she’ll sing for posada with at Christmas without having to be asked. There’ve always been people to look to when someone says, “we’ll split into groups for this,” so there’s been no lack, really.

But her friendship with Héctor and Ernesto is different, and new.

She doesn’t know if it’s because they’re a secret, or because they’re boys, or because for the first time she is making this happen, instead of just not arguing as it happens around her.

“Boys?” her mother narrows her eyes, scenting blood. “Musicians?”

“What?” Imelda blinks, and then immediately thinks, oh no, who tattled?

She loops her apron over her head, saying quickly, “Óscar and Felipe are with me, they’ve never been alone with me, los Consequela are all musicians too if you think about it, bye, love you, Mamá,” and slithering out the door before her mother could grab her.

Héctor makes her feel clever — it’s stupid, how intoxicating that is, to be able to talk with someone without feeling like they’re just waiting for her to walk away so they can go back to what they were doing. Imelda finds herself concocting conversations with him in her head, where she is brilliant, witty, quicker on the rejoinder than even her cleverest cousins, and he’s admiring.

(He doesn’t usually stick to her script, in reality. But the fantasy is nice.)

“You’re valley boys, aren’t you?”

“Yeah!” Héctor cups his hands around the mule’s ears, pointing them straight up like jackrabbit’s and cooing, to keep the creature from being overly concerned with what Imelda’s doing around its hoof region. “Santa Cecilia.”

Diplomatically, Imelda says, “Never heard of it.”

“To be honest, I don’t think God has, either. He set it down while looking for His keys and has been scratching His head about it ever since.”

She barks laughter, and the mule heaves the kind of sigh that can only be described as long-suffering.

(She’ll forget, sometimes, when she’s busy imagining how to make him laugh, that he can make her laugh too.)

Héctor flashes her a grin. “What gave it away?”

She scrubs off the last of the shavings and sets the hoof down, scooting her block over to pick up the next one.

“Your accents,” she says.

Our accents?” his voice soars up indignantly. “There’s nothing wrong with them! You’re the ones who sound weird!”

“Do not!”

“Do too! What are you trying to do to your vowels? It’s like you’re stretching them on a rack — they’re tortured and miserable enough already, let them be.” To demonstrate, he pulls his “aah”s out comedically far, and Imelda’s head pops up.

“We don’t sound like that!” she protests, and to her horror, hears her voice do the exact thing his just did.

He points at her, like, gotcha!

Around them, the bustle of the base station continues; nuns on horseback shouting to one another, volunteers running back and forth to keep each group’s lanterns lit. The fog can descend on you alarming fast, up here. Above their heads, the elfin pine trees shush one another so they can hear better, standing tall and silent spare for the nudging at their crowns.

This deep in the forest, even the air smells different, stronger, like iron left out in the damp.

The base station is a quieter place, usually, except on days like this, when the nuns come to mobilize everyone for a search — in this case, for a gelding who bolted from his party and took a young passenger with him. Imelda will take that, the possibility of rescue that comes with the word “lost,” rather than the other word, which is “fell.”

Those are always the worst, the people who don’t respect the mountains, the forest, the fog, who think they can step off the train and rent a pack animal from Don Consequela’s and descend the mountain without any group or guide. They’re the ones who wind up stepping out over nothing, sending themselves and their horses plummeting, and so the nuns come back to San Juan Albán needing volunteers — a human chain of remorseful, careful hands to lift the remains and bring them home.

But that’s the calling of their religious order, the one Bernice and Deremé joined: to maintain the trails that crisscross the mountains, and to look for the lost.

Imelda, of course, isn’t allowed to join a search party, and stays at base where there’s ample supervision, apron on in case of horse emergencies.

She sets the last hoof down and snicks her tongue. The mule twitches its ears out of Héctor’s grip.

Standing, she stretches out her back and looks around for Padre Luis. He’d brought her the mule, wondering at its sore temperament, and Imelda had seen the problem immediately.

“What group are you with, anyway?” she asks.

“None, at the moment. I wanted to check the river — the little one, before it joins up with the Santo Domingo. I thought maybe the horse might drift there, once the panic wore off. But I didn’t see any signs.”

She stares at him.

“What?” he says, in trepidation.

“Going off into the forest alone is the whole reason we’re here!” she exclaims, and his eyebrows tick up, like, oh, it is, isn’t it. “No wonder God forgot you! Aren’t you afraid of death?”

Irritatingly, Héctor just laughs.

“What? No, Ernesto’s not here.”

And there he goes again, using a person like he’s an answer.

She puts her hands on her hips. “I don’t see what that has to do with anything!”

“Death’s not going to bother with me unless Ernesto’s there,” he tells her with easy confidence. “Because it’s going to want to show off. He saved my life once when we were little, see. What’s the point of killing me, if he’s not there to see it? I’m safe, promise.”

“That clears up … exactly nothing. Also,” she feels the need to point out, “you spend every waking moment with Ernesto. It’s likely you’ll be together when you die.”

His teeth make a bright, startling appearance.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” he admits, grinning at her. “I’d better be more careful.”

 

*

 

Likewise, if Héctor Rivera makes her feel clever, then Ernesto de la Cruz just makes her feel confused, and lost.

Their friendship comes cobbled, hand-me-down from their much larger, more encompassing friendships with Héctor, and Imelda has enough cast-offs to last her a lifetime, thank you.

 

*

 

Anyone with something to sell in San Juan Albán sets up a stall on the main street, but a secondary market pops up on the train platform sometimes, like puddles after a rain; it’s where the poorer women lay out their mats and comals piled high with tortillas, trying to catch business denied them by the bigger vendors. It’s also where the battlefield scalpers lurk, wanting to pawn off knives, pocketwatches and jewelry, rosaries with the family names sanded off. They can always melt away onto the next departing train if the authorities show up.

It’s the end of a long day, and Imelda comes in from the stables covered in haydust and thinking longingly of a good hard scrub, except her mother materializes and points at her.

“You,” she says, “with me,” and Imelda groans and puts her apron back on.

Getting to the train station from Casa Consequela is only a matter of walking in a large semi-circle, but none of Imelda’s aunts would be caught dead down there. It’s a breach of conduct Imelda’s mother is exempt from, for reasons Imelda doesn’t want to examine too closely.

They’ve come at a good time — one train’s just arrived, engine still hissing and leaking steam as it cools, and another’s about to depart, so the platform teems with travelers. Imelda follows her mother, who stops to get her bearings and adjust the shawl over her hair, then beelines through the crowd. A beat later, she sees what’s got her attention: a gaggle of young women are selling tamales out of baskets at the end of the platform, and her cousin’s among them.

She spots them coming at the same time, and her face pales.

Imelda feels a commiserating stab.

“Ay, tía, no!” the cousin says, frantic. “Did Mamá send you? I’m not doing anything wrong! I just wanted to spend time with my friends!”

“Some friends!” Imelda’s mother scoffs — and loudly. “Look at you, grease all around your mouth! Show me your hands!” She immediately tries to sit on them, but Imelda could have told you that wasn’t going to work; her mother snatches her by the wrists and yanks her upright, holding her out for inspection. “Ayy, oily fingertips — you’ve been eating as many of these as you’ve been selling!”

The other girls try to protest.

“She’s not being indecent, doña —“

“Doña, please — !”

Typically, Imelda’s proud when people call her mother that. Unlike her uncle, who has to order people to call him “don,” Doña Flores has earned it by merit of who she is. But right now, she’s painfully aware this demonstration is for her benefit as well — your family is watching, Imelda, and we will make a scene if that’s what it takes to keep you in line, so don’t make us make a scene.

She eases herself down the platform, trying to distance herself from them, and bumps right into someone’s back.

“Oh! Pérdon, señor, I didn’t — oh, it’s you.”

Ernesto de la Cruz blinks at her bemusedly.

“Imelda,” he says.

A beat passes.

Héctor’s not with him, and neither of them have any idea how to behave around each other without him. Ernesto’s eyes take her in head-to-toe with a flick, and though nothing about his expression changes, Imelda is suddenly, painfully aware that she’s carrying a day’s worth of hard work on her, grime visible at the creases of her elbows and around the collar of her blouse. She’s willing to bet her horse smell is pretty strong at this proximity, too.

Her stomach flips over and promptly begins to heat up with humiliation. Why couldn’t it have been Héctor? She doesn’t feel so obvious with him.

Stinging, she looks past him.

The girl he’d been talking to sits on a blanket surrounded by crates displaying various knick-knacks. Some are artesanía, like the kind Imelda’s brothers make. A lot of it is junk. She doesn’t seem to notice Imelda at all — she’s still wearing a faintly round-eyed, gobsmacked expression, mouth working like a fish’s.

Imelda can’t blame her. Everything a man of nineteen years should be, Ernesto is twice of: if broad-shouldered is handsome, Ernesto is twice that; if a strong jaw and dimpled chin is handsome, Ernesto has double that. He’s calf-eyed, as tousle-haired as a recruiter’s portrait, and that’s all before he even opens his mouth. Nobody warned that poor girl she was going to have to put up with that today.

When at last she catches her eye, Imelda smiles at her, but something about it must come off more mocking than sympathetic, because the girl snaps her mouth shut, bristling all over. Deliberately, she turns away.

Imelda’s smile fades. Well, fine, then.

“Here,” says Ernesto, oblivious. “Look at what I just got.”

It’s a broadsheet advertisement. On the front is a photograph of several musicians and their instruments — guitar, trumpet, guittarón, tamborines — but at the center —

“Oh!” Recognition jolts her. “The mariachi!”

The mariachi,” Ernesto stresses, starstruck. “The Jalisco musician. He played for the president, and suddenly everybody wanted mariachi music in their homes. It never would have caught on, without him.”

He holds it out at arm’s length, smiling. A moment later, a frown pinches his brows together.

“I shouldn’t have spent so much on it,” he murmurs, and Imelda’s watching, so she sees the exact moment the salesgirl snaps out of her spell and throws a disgusted look at the back of Ernesto’s head. Apparently when it comes down to handsome men or money, money wins. Imelda tamps down a smile. “But —“

“But everyone should have a portrait of their patron saint,” she finishes for him, steering him away from the poor girl.

He blinks at her several times, like she’s thrown dust into his eyes.

“That’s it exactly.” He peers at her. “Do you want to be a mariachi, Imelda?”

“If I play with you, doesn’t that make me one already?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I haven’t thought about it,” says Imelda, who’s thought about it a lot more since she started hanging out with musicians — on purpose, anyway. But she’s not Ava. She’s not going to be given a choice, so really, there’s no point in talking about it.

Ernesto waits for a beat to see if she’ll continue, and when she doesn’t, a flash of annoyance purses his lips together.

“My apprenticeship finishes soon,” he tells her. “And then I’ll be a maestro.”

And really, he should be already. He’s Papá Figaro’s most senior apprentice, and while it grants him plenty of privileges he has no trouble utilizing for his and Héctor’s benefit, all apprenticeships must end. And Ernesto is rather … old to still be a student.

“And then this is what Héctor and I are going to do,” he holds the broadsheet up again, admiring it. “We’ll go to Mexico City and we’ll make something no one’s ever heard before.”

“Oh?” Imelda says noncommittally.

The capital had been the only thing President Díaz cared about, there towards the end. Its size, wealth, opportunity — the disparity between these things and the conditions in the rest of Mexico made Mexico City seem about as obtainable as the moon. It’s part of the reason the generals in outlying states came together to overthrow him.

Although —

She tilts her head, considering him.

Ernesto might think he’s at the end of his apprenticeship, but Héctor isn’t. If Héctor’s going with him, is he just going to pull him out of school? What about his apprenticeship?

Imelda can’t imagine treating anyone with that level of casual possessiveness — but then again, maybe she would if she had a friendship like theirs.

She opens her mouth —

“There you are!” a voice shouts.

Oliveras elbows his way through the mingling crowd. He’s the musician who asked Imelda for a light that first day by the gazebo, and has never failed to reinforce that miserable first impression in every interaction since.

“— supposed to meet, right?” he’s saying, and then his eyes dance past Ernesto, landing on Imelda.

His eyebrows vault up.

“Annnd that’s … not the usual falda you’ve got swinging around you,” he comments. “Ay, little short to be Héctor, isn’t she?”

Laughing at his own joke, he sidles in next to them, but Imelda’s watching Ernesto, and his face —

— his face does something peculiar, and sharp, and deeply unfriendly. It’s a matching look for the violent thing happening to Imelda’s insides. She did not expect them to be on the same page about this.

“Oh, come on,” says Oliveras, when the silence becomes uncomfortable. “Usually you laugh at that, what’s gotten into you?”

Imelda!”

She startles.

“Come on, we’re going!” her mother calls to her. “Ach, it’s a devil’s crossing up here.”

With a polite nod to the boys, she adjusts her apron and crosses the platform to join her mother, who has her chagrined cousin firmly underwing. Behind her, she hears Oliveras say, “— just a photo. Ay, you spent money on that, amigo? On purpose?”

 

*

 

Now, when she sings with them — in various combinations, but they work best with two guitars, two vocals, with Ernesto pulling double — people come up to them afterwards.

“Oh, so that’s what you boys had been missing,” Oliveras declares, lounging back and smirking. “Who knew all you needed was a pretty girl.” It’d almost be a compliment, if not for how he immediately follows it up with a wink and a leery, “but aren’t we all?”

When they’re done, Héctor hops down out of the back of the gazebo and stretches a hand up to help her, except she’s already down and scraping mud off her boot heel. He blinks and she grins, and then she steps away and almost runs directly into a man’s chest.

“I beg your pardon, señor, I —“

He cuts her off. “Are you the Consequela girl?”

“I …” Imelda blinks at the off-white buttons sagging tiredly on his shirt, like seasick sailors, then up — and up — at his face. She cringes. “I’m one of them, maestro.”

Papá Figaro’s eyebrows are vast, snowy, and not unlike the fog in the way they seem to encroach on every other feature on his face, leaving them very little room for themselves. As she looks at them, the clouds part briefly, showing her his eyes, then descend again.

“Hmm,” he says.

Then, “I like knowing where my apprentices go when they break curfew. You’ll do for now, señorita.”

“… thank you?” Imelda tries, but he’s already gone.

There hadn’t been a lecture from the engineer today, but the twins wanted to come out and Imelda took advantage. Sunlight had parted through the mountains at last, and all of San Juan Albán turned out to see it: the musicians play in the gazebo, and the boys and girls walk the plaza where everything’s come up green.

The boys go one way, of course, and the girls go the other, to avoid indecency, but a boy and a girl stopping to talk to each other was one way to … declare your intentions, if you wanted to.

Imelda stands at a midpoint between the two, the gazebo and the circle, and does a very unsubtle job trying to see if there’s a girl that’s caught her brothers’ eye. Occasionally, the traffic will part long enough for her to glimpse their hats. She resists bouncing on her tiptoes.

A scuffle, and Héctor joins her, scrubbing at his hair.

Imelda glances at him, determines that Ernesto isn’t with him, and looks back towards the circle. He sets his guitar case down on top of his feet.

“I think it has to be hard sometimes, being his friend,” she says to him, quiet.

Without either of them looking to check, she knows that the patrons are still praising Ernesto’s playing, which he returns with charm. Héctor and Imelda are superfluous, at that point.

Nobody’s doing it maliciously. Ernesto’s just easy to look at, easy to praise.

Héctor jogs his shoulders back at her.

“It is and it isn’t,” he says comfortably, without bitterness.

And Imelda thinks that’s going to be it, except then he says, “It’s not that I’m not ambition. We have the same dream. We’re going in the same direction. It’s just. Do you ever just … look at the way a person acts and get hungry for it? Like, you’re never sure whether you like them for who they are or if you like them because you want to be them, just for a day, just because they make it look so easy?”

All of this is said with barely any pause. Imelda blinks.

“I …” she starts.

Héctor shakes himself all over, like an itchy dog.

“And — that sounded crazy,” he says, ducking his head over the case sitting on top of his feet. “I’m sorry, I’m not usually —“

No,” Imelda says in a rush. “It makes perfect sense.”

Because that’s it exactly. On those days when she hadn’t been able to do anything right and wanted, just for one day, one hour, one minute, to be one of her cousins. One of the ones that didn’t have to scrape for every last bite of attention out of the pot.

She hadn’t thought to think of it like hunger, but of course it is. An empty stomach, yawning.

They’re staring at each other now — dawning, sunshine-between-mountains kind of looks, a sudden awareness of familiarity. They recognize it for what it is in the same moment, and look away. Imelda runs her fingers along her hairline, where she’s been oiling down her baby hair.

“And you don’t think he feels that way about you?” she ventures.

“Ernesto?” Héctor makes a noise. “Ach, no. What could he want from me that he doesn’t already have?”

Your talent, she thinks immediately, and almost says it, too, if not for the fact she doesn’t think he’ll get it. Whenever new sheets cross their hands, they’ll split up the parts without discussing it, and Héctor always, always takes the harder technical parts, and maybe he doesn’t notice but Imelda and Ernesto sure do. Whatever else Ernesto inherently possesses, it doesn’t stop him from wanting that, too.

But this — this she understands.

You don’t break into the wealthiest house on the block and risk getting caught stealing — risk being branded with a hot iron (the common punishment, then,) risk your apprenticeship and your reputation, risk never getting an opportunity again — just to save someone from an embarrassment.

Unless —

Unless that person matters more to you than anyone else living.

Héctor Rivera loves Ernesto de la Cruz. Helplessly.

Fortunately for him, it’s such a common affliction as to be practically unnoticeable.

 

*

 

Shortly after Imelda turns seventeen, they disappear for a month.

They tell her they’re going to do it — one of the patrons Ernesto had been talking to at the gazebo promised them a show, if they could get to Veracruz without being stopped by Carranza’s blockade. So they hopped on an early morning train dressed like recruits, and Imelda doesn’t worry about them when they don’t immediately return.

Not until five days later, when Ava stops her in the market under the cover of the fishmonger’s caterwauling and says, “Have you heard from your boys?”

“No,” says Imelda. There’s a peculiar lurch in her chest, like her heart’s a cricket trying to escape a pair of cupped hands, and she doesn’t know if that’s at the real concern she sees in Ava’s face, or the way she said your boys, like Imelda can’t count what belongs to her on one hand.

“Do you know where they went?” Ava presses. “Papá Figaro is losing sleep.”

Imelda doesn’t see how anybody could tell. Figaro’s face probably looks the same sleeping as it does awake.

“Veracruz, to play for Don Hidalgo, they said.”

Ava blinks several times in quick succession. She clearly hadn’t expected Imelda to know.

“Didn’t they … tell him?” Imelda continues, suspicion dawning.

And Ava puts her head in her hands and groans, “It’s a trap. Don Hildago isn’t a real name! He’s a recruiter! He’s gone and conned them and we don’t even know for which army. Oh, Figaro’s going to be furious.”

Absently, Imelda gives her a reassuring pat and considers this.

“If that’s true, that’s the army’s mistake,” she points out, reasonably. “Héctor’s not old enough,” at least, not for any army that matters. The ones that make soldiers out of children aren’t worth mentioning. “They’ll send them packing soon enough.”

Weirdly, she isn’t upset. The maestro would have never given them permission to go off to play music, whatever the reason, not when they probably would have to “borrow” the guitars, too — but why hadn’t they told anybody else?

Anybody, that is, besides her?

Maybe … maybe as important as their friendship is to her, her friendship is just as important to them.

“Why do you look so pleased?” Ava asks, squinting.

“No reason,” Imelda says quickly.

A month later, they come crawling back, embarrassed and out every last bit of money they had between them, but visibly no worse for the wear. Imelda, whose boredom had turned prickly and actually start to resemble something like worry, is all too happy to have them back so she can poke fun. Papá Figaro and the mayor and Imelda’s uncle make examples out of them, for why you can’t believe the promises of every Don Hidalgo who offers you a toast. This time, it was just them bargaining for their lives, but next time you might be conned into giving up something more important, like your land or your God.

There is something different about them, though.

Imelda can’t quite put her finger on it.

It’s like, before they had kept an eye on each other, but now they don’t even do that. Now they’ve both facing the same direction and it’s unnecessary; the right side of the body doesn’t need to watch the left to see what it’s doing. It makes Imelda restless, like they’re right here, smiling at her and regaling her with the stories of their dastardly escape from the army (“did you pine, Imelda? Were you pining for us?”) and giving her more difficult things to sing, but some part of them’s already gone far beyond her reach.

 

*

 

Héctor makes a point of seeing her every Sunday at Mass, loitering together in the choir loft while everyone sorts out their vestments.

They’ve got time. Her uncle’s usually the last Consequela to leave the church, needing to make up for all that time they were celebrating God by celebrating himself to their neighbors.

(The cathedral in San Juan Albán has a mixed choir, men and women, which Imelda doesn’t realize makes it an exception to the rule until practically the year she dies, when she’s waiting with Coco on plastic chairs in a hallway in Mexico City, reading about the decisions made by the Second Vatican Council and listening to the nurses gossip. She peers at the newspaper over her daughter’s shoulder, where it’s a blip at the end of several bullet points: the Catholic Church will now allow female lay persons to serve in certain acolytical positions. “But we always had women in our choir,” she remarks, blankly. It had been at Figaro’s insistence: made more sense to make use of what you had than to rely solely on your nine-year-old boys for your high sopranos. If God was offended by women singing in church, He wouldn’t have given them voices, so therefore, the only ones truly offended by women singing in church were men.)

If she’s not singing with the choir that week, Héctor comes by the family pew with something that she “dropped” so he can return it to her.

“I didn’t know I’d raised someone so forgetful,” her mother comments, frowning at them sidelong.

“You didn’t, Héctor’s just an attentive young man,” which isn’t the … stupidest thing Imelda’s ever said, but Héctor pops his eyebrows at her, looking delighted — and attentive — and that almost makes it worth it.

Sometimes, Ernesto comes too, although he does it with the air of someone who’d just been hauled to one side and told, distract everybody else so that I can talk to Imelda. Most people are willing to be distracted, if it’s Ernesto.

Héctor comes to borrow things from them — ribbons from her hair, horse tack, and once, memorably, a chicken. He plays up their well-meaning, penniless vibe, because there’s no real danger to him: Don Consequela is never going to seriously consider a suit from a musician’s apprentice, especially not one as unfortunate-looking as Héctor, so you might as well let niñita Imelda have her little admirer.

Still. She’d warned him once — you’re acting like an illicit suitor — and he’s taking careful pains not to put her in that position again, so that they can keep singing together.

Attentive, see.

As for whether or not he’s as ugly as they say, Imelda can’t tell — being in close proximity to Ernesto tends to skew these things. And Imelda’s heard him play. She’s lost all frame of reference for what’s lovely and what isn’t, with Héctor.

“May I borrow that?”

“No,” says Imelda promptly, and then, at Héctor’s look of surprise — that had been a sharp rebuff, even for her — amends it to, “no, wait, here.”

His expression changes as he handles her Bible, some instinct telling him — rightly — that this had been her mother’s gift to her, an apology for not being able to make her a proper quinceañera, that it had been her godmother’s before that, that he was holding a possession as prized as a musical instrument.

“I can’t,” he says, all levity gone from his voice.

He sits down beside her, passing it back.

Imelda holds it by the spine, watching the pages feather apart along familiar breaks.

“Don’t you have one of your own?” she asks.

“I mean, yes, somewhere,” he makes a vague gesture. “I don’t think it’s as valuable as yours, though.”

They sit in silence. Around them, viejitas shake out their best scarves and set them lightly over their thinning hair before stepping out into the plaza, and children wait alongside their parents with the same checked-out expressions they do through the whole Mass itself, counting down each string of Latin until it’s time to go.

Héctor reaches over, thumbing the place where the break in the pages is most noticeable, matching a similar crease in the spine.

“This your favorite?” he asks.

Imelda presses it closed before he can see chapter and verse.

She hesitates, uncertain how to explain that she knows — she knows God put that verse in there specifically for her. And He must have, right, if it’s His book? Anyone reading the Bible would find something different in it, something that speaks directly to them in a way it doesn’t speak to anyone else, because God in His infinite wisdom knew that they would need it, even all these years down the line.

And it’s true, the older she gets the more she’s inclined to doubt the things adults try to pass off as incontrovertible fact, but the feeling she got the first time she opened to that verse and read it — there’s no way that came from anything but the divine.

“It’s … they’re love letters God penned to us, aren’t they,” is what she decides on, inadequately.

Héctor watches her. “I thought you didn’t like love letters, señorita.”

“I don’t like love letters from little boys,” she fires back. “Anyone who tries to woo me had better be —“

“God the Almighty?” he finishes.

Yes,” she says, just to be contrary.

 

*

 

That month, General Venustiano Carranza and his allies launch an assault against the Liberation Army. They seize control of Mexico City. It forces Villa and Zapata into retreat, their supply lines restricted and communications scrambled, and all of Mexico groans under the strain.

Imelda’s uncle sits swollen like a bullfrog, proud to be backing the winning man and wanting everyone to know it, until three of San Juan Albán’s own arrive on the back of an incoming train, nailed into pine boxes branded with the constitutionalist crest.

One is the husband of a Consequela cousin, a quiet young tenor Imelda vaguely remembers working with in the stables, more interested in the jacks and the jennies than he was in whatever game of bravado the others were goading each other with in the paddock. His widow accepts the honors, dazed and pale and disbelieving.

“That could have been us,” her brother Óscar grimly.

“It could still be us,” her brother Felipe points out. “Those men will need to be replaced.”

“No,” Imelda cuts in. “It won’t be you, we’re not going to let it happen.”

And they look at her with identical bleak expressions, like they know she’s got no idea how she’s going to make it come true.

 

*

 

The shift happens so gradually she doesn’t even notice until it’s said and done, but somewhere along the line it becomes an accepted fact that Imelda Consequela Flores is a musician, and if you’re looking for her then you should probably check around the gazebo in the plaza, where all the other musicians loiter. They know her, and she knows them, what they’ve got going on in their lives, their likes and dislikes, the instruments they perform best on — almost, you know, the way friends do.

It turns out there’s a big difference between belonging somewhere because someone else decided it, and belonging somewhere because it’s where you fit.

Óscar and Felipe make sure she’s chaperoned, of course.

“Musician or not — ” starts one.

“— you are still a Consequela,” finishes the other.

“An unmarried Consequela.”

“So are you!” Imelda says hotly. “What happens if young men are seen promenading with you? Is our entire family shamed then?”

But for all their talk, the twins have their own knot of like-minded individuals on their side of the plaza, and while they arrive together and leave together, they watch her about as much as she watches them — which is to say, not at all. Imelda appreciates that.

The days they can take her don’t always match with the days Héctor and Ernesto can meet up with her, but on those days Ava absorbs her into her group. This never fails to catch Imelda by surprise; the immediate way women come to the aid of other women without having to be asked.

“For propriety,” she tells Imelda with a wink. “Though I can’t promise it’s doing your reputation any good. Mine’s not sterling.”

This is because Ava has the audacity to dress like a mariachi and perform like one and expect pay like one too.

“Bah, I don’t care!” Imelda says, with all the vehemence that comes from having a half-dozen aunts rushing to tell you not to be like Ava.

“Ay, chica, that’s sweet of you to say.”

It’s on such an evening, when Imelda’s sitting in the plaza with Ava who’s working through the ornamental beading pattern for a new mariachi skirt, that she first coaxes the mangy white cat to approach.

“Hello,” she says to it, giving it a scratch under the chin. “I don’t remember seeing you around before.”

It leans into her touch with great dignity, like it’s the one allowing her the honor of giving it a scratch, and Imelda cuts a look in Ava’s direction to make sure she sees that she’s been blessed. Ernesto, making his rounds, stops by to say hello, and the cat peels its eyes open and looks at him with the frank dislike that only cats and certain aunts can get away with. He returns the look.

“You’re going to get fleas,” he says to Imelda.

She opens her mouth, snide remark at the ready, but there’s a shout from the band currently setting up in the gazebo and he whisks off.

Ach,” Imelda says, with feeling.

Ava directs a knowing smile at nothing in particular, and Imelda transfers her scowl to her.

The cat gets bored with her eventually and wanders away. Someone’s lit the street lamps as dusk darkens around them, but the cloud hasn’t come to ground yet and no one’s in a hurry to go inside. Imelda closes her eyes and leans back onto her elbows, savoring the night and the trilling yells from the gazebo as Ernesto and the others on stage work themselves up during a break between verses. The crowd choruses back.

Then there’s a yowl, indignant and reedy and just barely audible over the music.

Imelda lifts her head. Was that the cat?

Getting up and shaking out her skirts, she goes to investigate.

The edge of the plaza butts up against the bigger of San Juan Albán’s two posadas, and as Imelda rounds the corner out back where they toss the slops, she almost trips right over the woman sitting there.

“Sorry!” Imelda yelps in surprise.

Then:

“Wait — Ines?”

Her prima curses, grabbing her by the wrist and yanking her down next to her, so they aren’t visible to the musicians anymore.

“What are you — ?”

“Shh!”

Inside the inn, she can hear someone yelling about the horses for the captain and what blockhead gave him the best room anyway, all soldiers are uniformly worthless about paying their bills, and in the same breath demand that the night cook get the final pot of cocoa ready, last train of the night is due in ten minutes. Out here, though, it’s quiet except for the music.

Careful of where she puts her feet, Imelda crouches next to her and obediently lowers her voice.

“What are we doing?”

Ines blows out a breath, drops her head back and rolls it against the colored stone, back and forth. “You’re going to think I’m ridiculous.”

Imelda frowns.

“Ridiculous” is … the last word she would use to describe Ines, probably. Her cousin is straight-backed, horsey, with a long neck like an Easter vase and not so much a gap between her front teeth as an alleyway. She mumbles too quietly one moment and brays too loudly the next, and — like Óscar and Felipe — has never been much of a specimen their uncle enjoyed showing off to clients. But unlike Óscar and Felipe, Ines is brilliant with horses. They trust her; she could lead them through the cloud forest blinkered if she wanted to.

Being close to the bottom of the pecking order makes them companions of sort, but this is so unlike her that Imelda’s out of her depth.

“You don’t know what I’ll think unless you try me,” she settles on.

Ines gives her a dubious look, but as another grito belts out from the stage, the expression on her face freezes, and hangs there suspended, like a raindrop left poised at the very tip of a branch. It comes down, and her mouth makes a wobbling, liquid shape.

She folds her arms, and speaks to her boots. “I’ve just … I’ve become infatuated with that man’s voice, prima.”

Feeling more lost by the second, Imelda follows the miserable jerk of her chin.

“Wait, whose?”

“His. I could listen to it forever.”

”Ernesto?”

Her voice goes squeaky. She feels like she dropped the entire contents of her brain.

Oh, prima, no, is her first thought. Don’t. You’ll wind up like Sister Evalina, and, Héctor’s grown a horse’s handspan since then, we can’t pass him off as a girl anymore, but what comes out of her mouth is, “you’re married.”

It works: Ines stops looking wounded and starts looking exasperated.

“Being married doesn’t stop you from falling in love, Imelda,” she says.

Imelda stares back, uncomprehending, because that absolutely feels like something that should not happen. You’re married! There are vows! She doesn’t want to think about how … complicated it would get, if you could just love whoever.

“Then — “

“You can fall in love many times. Once you’re married, though, it’s your responsibility to respond a certain way. So I will never speak to him, but I will do …” she gestures to their surroundings, out back where the kitchen staff toss their cigarette butts and waste, where they’re trying so hard to be invisible. “Shameful things just to hear him.”

Why?” Imelda manages. She can’t speak for all those people in the plaza, but she’s never felt the need to stop in her tracks for Ernesto de la Cruz. She’d assumed her cousin would be just as sensible.

But Ines is done being interrogated.

With an embarrassed shrug, she mutters, “oh, I don’t know,” and draws her heels up onto her crate with her, wrapping her arms around her knees.

“Ines …”

“I told you it was silly, prima, let it go.”

Imelda studies the hunchbacked shape she makes in the dark.

Their uncle had married her off as soon as he could — to secure her, he said. Imelda doesn’t think she’s ever seen anyone less secure.

She gets up. “Come on,” she says.

Pulling the resisting Ines to her feet, she drags her back out into the plaza. Ines digs her heels in, and Imelda welds her to her side.

“Come on,” she says again, wheedling. “There’s nothing to see here. Just two cousins, listening to the mariachi.”

They come to a halt just outside the ring of listeners. It’s Ernesto on stage, Héctor alongside him, and another boy on trumpet that Imelda recognizes vaguely as one of the Jimenez boys but probably couldn’t tell you which one, not even if he introduced himself five minutes ago.

Ernesto spots her first, and turns with an exaggerated wink.

“Ach.” Imelda rolls her eyes.

Ines’s fingers tighten on her arm. Tension radiates off of her.

Imelda peeks sidelong, sees her head turned down and her other hand clutching the laces of her shirt closed over her throat, like something’s pounding at her pulse and might leap out if she doesn’t. So she waits through this song and the one after it, and when she looks again, Ines’s eyes are closed, her face tipped up to the music.

“Imeldita,” she says.

Imelda tilts her head. “Yes?”

There’s a pause. Maybe-Jimenez blasts out an emphatic note on the trumpet, the crowd shouts back, and underneath it Ines’s voice is a small, kicked thing, trying not to get stepped on.

“Mexico is sick, can you feel it? Heartsick, all the way through.”

“Ines … ?”

“We’re hardly even Mexico anymore, if we ever were. Instead, we’re just a dozen desperate states, ruled by whoever has the most guns and horses. There hasn’t been a stable government in seven years, and no one’s managed to kill each other enough to make it stop.”

It’s not anything Imelda hasn’t heard before, but it’s different coming from Ines. Practical Ines, whose voice is now in pieces, leaking everywhere.

“I’m sick to my stomach that the only men left for us to marry are the ones not good enough to fight. I have to tell myself that I got lucky — that my uncle married me so quickly for a reason, but if I got lucky, then someone didn’t. I worry that it’ll be you.

“I know we think we’re so remote up here, but we’re not. Any day now, those generals could decide our train station is too good a target to ignore, and I’m so tired of being scared, I —“

She stops abruptly, then reaches out and covers Imelda’s eyes.

“Listen,” she croaks, as Imelda blinks her eyelashes against her palm. “Can you forget, when you’re listening to him? Can you forget that it’s like that, out there?”

“No,” Imelda answers, surprised to find the answer is an honest one. “I don’t forget anything. It’s not — I remember, instead.”

Ines breathes out, slow.

“Yes,” she agrees, like she’s been given something new. “Yes, that’s it exactly. It’s not that I forget what’s out there —“

“How can you,” says Imelda, with sympathy.

“— it’s that I remember what we can be like — what Mexico is.”

Her hand drops, and they stand there, clutching each other’s arms.

“I want him to succeed because I want our country to succeed,” Ines tells her, with feeling. “That’s how he makes me feel. Where he came from, we all came from. He’s the best of us.”

Imelda’s eyes are open again, so she’s watching as Ernesto and Héctor both stomp on the wooden floorboards of the gazebo and pivot, pressing back-to-back as they play the same riff on their guitars in unison, a showy move that has everyone whistling with appreciation.

Grinning wide, Héctor leans against Ernesto, tipping his head back unselfconsciously against his shoulder, and Imelda looks at his face and knows exactly what Ines means.

 

*

 

Here’s the worst part.

The absolutely awful, galling thing.

Now that she knows she’s in love, there’s no way to go back to not knowing it; it stains everything she does.

She’s seventeen and it completely overwhelms her, this disagreement between her body and her brain, the way she’s suddenly concerned with the things she never thought about before: the position of her knees when Héctor’s sitting next to her, the urge to press hers against his. To touch him. Anywhere.

She’s so aware of every possible point of contact that it nearly drowns out any other thought.

She asks people to repeat things a lot, now.

It’s infuriating.

It’s — it’s —

Well, you can probably imagine.

“Here, see, I got rid of the horns, they’re not nearly as important as they think they are — and then that’s you, when you come in,” he’s saying to her, foot propped up on a block so he can balance his guitar on his knee, drawing her in to see the stand. Imelda’s been grumbling about that piece for weeks, and finally, Héctor said, do you want me to fix it?

The acoustics room in Papá Figaro’s workshop had once seemed as inaccessible to Imelda as Jericho must have to the Israelites before they started singing, but it finally occurred to the engineer from Zacatlán that no one in San Juan Albán was going to hire him to blast dams out of their mountain, so he’s been trying something else — specifically, trying Papá Figaro. Musical engineering is the new pet project, but it means Imelda’s brothers can take her places she hasn’t been before.

Héctor says, “do you think that’s doable?” because she hasn’t spoken yet, and Imelda gives herself a shake and glances up at him —

— and it’s like getting ambushed, the way they tell you not to walk into the cloud forest without a guide because of treacherous trails, because of what lives just out of sight: it’s maw-mouthed and made entirely of teeth, this want of hers. She drags her eyes from his finger, tapping against the sheet, to his shoulder to his mouth, and she wouldn’t be surprised if they unearthed her body mauled, full of puncture wounds.

She wants to be the person Héctor Rivera kisses, wants everyone else to see that she’s the person Héctor Rivera wants to kiss.

Imelda has never wanted anything like this before.

Stop that, she tells herself, distantly horrified, but it would help if she knew what she was talking to.

Is it her head, her heart?

She wishes one of them would take responsibility for this mess. Then she would know where to direct all her ire.

He’s still waiting for an answer, so she blurts out, “do you think it’s doable?” because she has no idea what they’re talking about and parroting questions is a good a cover as any.

Héctor arches an eyebrow, and Imelda, briefly, contemplates dying on the spot.

“I want everything to be doable,” he tells her. Patiently. The bastard. “That’s why I’m asking you. This song is … ah, for you, if you want it.”

“Ah,” she says, eloquently. “Good.”

Another awkward beat. She thinks maybe that wasn’t the answer he was expecting.

Slowly, he starts to grin. “Are you okay?”

“Bah!” she flaps her hands, which only sets him off laughing. “Mind your own business!”

“I don’t know if I have any of that,” he returns, chortling. “Can I borrow some from you?”

Ach.”

 

*

 

Her cousin marries, as cousins tend to do, and since he’s a male cousin who hasn’t yet lost fortune or health to soldiering, he fetches a fine bride. Don Consequela is pleased with himself — it’s insufferable, how he can take two young people’s happiness and make it all about him, and there’s nowhere Imelda can go to get away from it.

The maestro offers his most senior apprentices to be the band, and those apprentices in turn ask Imelda to sing with them.

“It wouldn’t be a wedding without a woman’s voice, and Papá should know that,” Héctor says despairingly, “but I don’t think he’s got a romantic bone in his body.”

“And he’s been to Rome,” Ernesto adds.

“What does that have to do with it?” chimes in that same maybe-Jimenez, trying to find the correct case for his trumpet.

Ernesto turns towards him, gesturing confidently, “You can’t go to there and not come back a romantic. It’s just not possible.”

Imelda listens to this exchange, bemused.

It’s probably a place like any other, she wants to say, but what does she know? She’s never left her mountain. And the way Papá Figaro describes it, Europe doesn’t sound like a real place, either.

(“Is it though?” he’ll say to her when they meet each other in the afterlife, compulsively picking at the glue that keeps his eyebrows attached to the heavy front of his bare skull. “Did any of us ever really get any proof that it’s a real place? How do we know?” Soledad’s only response to this is to pop her gum incredulously, but Imelda rolls her eyes where Figaro can’t see and answers, “They came to the Olympics in Mexico City, Papá. I was there.”

“Why aren’t they here though?” he whispers. “In the Land of the Dead?”

The only book available to Imelda as a young girl was the Bible, so she’d learned to read and write on the Old Testament oaths of God. She knows the answer to this one. “Because this is our land. It was promised to us. Not anyone else.”)

Her excitement lasts up until the day of the wedding, the exact moment before she goes onstage —

And then it suddenly flips around, leaving her woozy and a little sick.

There are hundreds of people here — they’re at the home of the bride’s family for the toasting, all the parents and godparents lined up in their crowns alongside the bride and groom, and the band isn’t even part of the main stage but rather tucked off to the side. But she’s never even been asked to sing the responsorial psalm in church, she can’t do this, who does she think she is? How can she demand the attention of that many people, and hold it?

No, no —

She can’t. She’ll humiliate her cousin. And then she’d never hear the end of it from his mother, or any of the aunts.

Shaking her head, she takes a step back, and almost trips over Ernesto’s feet.

He’s come up behind her without her realizing it, and steadies her with a cheerful “woah there,” then gets a good look at her face.

His eyes widen in alarm. “Uh oh.”

Quickly, he pulls on the strap of his guitar, slinging it around to his back so that it’s out of the way. She steps away from him, still restlessly shaking her head. He holds up his hands warily.

“Imelda, you’ve gone green!” he whispers.

“I can’t go up there!” Imelda hisses back. “That’s my family! My entire town! I can’t —“

She chokes. Something’s got its hand around her throat, squeezing everything back down into her, making it small and bitter and hard. She swallows against it. How do people do this?

“There’s nobody out there at all,” Ernesto tells her, soothingly.

Oh, like she can’t hear them all! The murmuring and laughing and clicking heels on the cobblestones, the dull swelling sound of a mass of people.

“Don’t give me that donkey —“ she starts, scowling.

“Imelda.”

And something in his tone makes her stop.

“You know the songs.” He sounds so steady. “Your body knows it. Your voice knows it. Listen to them, and they’ll get you through it.”

“Is that … what you do?”

“Well, I like singing to people,” Ernesto puts a hand to his chest. “But Héctor doesn’t. Watch him sometime. When he’s uncomfortable, you can see the moment he picks someone at the very back of the crowd, someone he can’t see clearly, and pictures —“

He stops abruptly, then switches tracks.

“— well, pictures somebody. And he sings only to that person. It keeps him from losing his nerve in front of big crowds. For me, it’s easier to let the song sing me. Does that make sense?”

“I —“ Imelda starts, but then Héctor’s there, Jimenez and Oliveras trailing behind him.

“Ready?” he asks them in a whisper, and then to Imelda without waiting for an answer, “you first!”

Ernesto swings his guitar around front again, and nods to her bracingly.

There’s really nothing for it at that point, and so Imelda mounts the steps to the stage and walks to her mark. She turns. She closes her eyes. She reaches for the song.

And she sings.

The boys are supposed to join her in subtle increments, swelling towards the final verse, and she’s so busy listening for them that she doesn’t hear the rest of it, the way the crowd slowly falls silent. She doesn’t see it, the way they turn towards her, group by group, to listen.

 

*

 

Eighty years from this moment, in another place, another time entirely, Imelda will be on her way home from another wedding — well, trying.

“I am not lost,” she insists. “It’s everything else that’s wrong. These signs aren’t informative enough! They should have planned the infrastructure better,” she tosses over her shoulder, to the shuffling of Pepita’s footpads on the cobblestones. “It’s not a very good city if its own citizens can’t navigate it, now is it?”

Pepita rumbles in response, then tilts her head.

“I’m not letting you carry me,” Imelda tells her archly. “That’s cheating.”

Pepita rumbles louder.

They take two more wrong turns, and wind up in a residential area with architecture Imelda recognizes only vaguely, like when two images don’t line up correctly and the effect turns blurry. Turn of the century? Before her time, but not by much.

“I’m lost,” she says flatly. “I should have listened to Soledad.”

Even if that meant accepting a ride on her motorbike, terrifying contraption that was.

Her alebrije whuffs out a slow breath across her scalp, then ducks her head obligingly so that Imelda can stroke her cheeks, there where the fur turns into a ridge of feathers.

“Still,” she muses, “it’s good to see him married. Gabriel was one of my most steadfast friends in life — when him getting married was an impossibility. I forget, sometimes, the opportunities we have now that we are dead.”

As she speaks, she scratches Pepita under her jaw, hard enough that she cants into her, eyes lidded and feathers puffing up with delight.

She leans too far, tips forward, and Imelda almost staggers under her weight.

“All right, all right!” she laughs, pushing her off.

The sound disturbs another alebrije roosting nearby, a lemur with spotted butterfly wings that lights from his nest with a scolding noise. As they track his swooping progress overhead, a rock suddenly hurtles itself out of the nearest building.

“Hey!” Imelda yelps.

The lemur barely manages to swerve in time, looping around his own tail and shouting in indignation. Frowning, Imelda cranes forward, trying to determine which of the shadowed julienne windows the projectile had come from.

Behind her, Pepita rises off her haunches and pads slowly down the street.

This time, Imelda sees the perfect arch of the stone falling through the air. It strikes Pepita directly between the horns, bounces off, and clatters to the road.

She lets herself blink once, unimpressed, and then looks to Imelda, who puts a finger to her lips and soundlessly slips her haurache off her heel, glad for once that she’d decided not to wear boots. They’re not as aerodynamic.

She aims.

She reels her arm back.

Her pitch lands dead center.

A satisfying yelp answers, followed by the distinct sounds of trash can lids clattering and, inexplicably, a cat yowling in protest.

A man appears in one of the windows, realigning his jaw so it clicks back into place. He glares down at them.

“What in the name of Santa Maria and all the saints was that for!”

Imelda lets her arm fall.

“Maestro!” she shouts in reprimand. “What are you doing, you could have hurt someone!”

Papá Figaro’s scowl deepens further, brows gathering down like cotton, but he gestures at her, so she climbs the fire escape while Pepita huffs disgruntledly, and he gives her a boost to get her skirts over the railing.

She should have realized, of course, what she was going to see, but it ambushes her anyway — the violins on the wall, the cello left leaning against the armchair, the harp in the corner — and Imelda is eighty years ago, terrified and sweating out her armpits and looking down the maw of her cousin’s wedding guests the same way people freeze, petrified, in front of predators.

Figaro lets go of her, which is enough, bafflingly, to send him reeling off-balance.

Imelda blinks, and blocks out the sight of the instruments — neatly, and from years of practice — in order to scrutinize him.

“Are you drunk?” she demands. “There’s no way you can be drunk. Inebriation isn’t possible without flesh!”

“Señora Rivera!” he bellows back at her, with a gregarious swing of his arms. “Welcome to my home!”

“Papá.”

He squints at her, taking in her outfit, her make-up. “Were you on a date?”

“A wedding,” she corrects, and finds her shoe again.

“Just you? None of your detend — desch — desssss — your babies’ babies?”

“Just me.”

“Ah.” He gives her a sly look. “You don’t want them to know about your friends from your secret life?”

Imelda rolls her eyes.

“Gabriel was my daughter’s godfather, he was no secret —“ she starts, and then stops, because that’s not the secret he’s talking about. Without meaning to, she steals another peek, seeing books of sheet music knocked askew, a violin bow left absent-mindedly on the back of the armchair. Under the smell of spirits, there’s the familiar bitter tang of instrument polish.

Her brothers know, and Julio probably knows, if it was ever relevant for Coco to tell him.

But her granddaughters have no idea, and certainly none of their children. Even Soledad had been full-grown before she learned the truth, looking at Imelda wide-eyed with shock and, oddly, something a little like betrayal.

I thought you hated musicians! I didn’t know you WERE one!

She’s taking too long to reply, and Figaro’s lost interest, meandering through the room. Imelda takes advantage of his distraction by removing the bucket of rocks he’d been using to pelt passerby.

When she turns back around, it’s in time to catch him cutting her a spiteful sliver of a look.

Imelda stiffens. He’s about to be cruel.

“I saw him the other day,” he tells her, soft. “Your husband.”

“I know,” she responds shortly. “I’ve seen him too.”

A pause.

Don’t, she thinks at him, but it’s too late.

“He ran away from me. Twice,” the maestro continues, remorselessly. “He never finished his apprenticeship. I don’t know how you could have expected it — that he’d stay with you. He never made it a habit.”

 

*

 

After, when the wedding party’s moved to the godparents’ hacienda for the dancing and drinking, Papá Figaro lets Ernesto, Héctor, and the others off the hook for the night, since they’d more or less been playing since sunrise, and another band takes over.

When Héctor tracks her down, he’s carrying two tiny glasses of mezcal.

He makes like he’s going to offer her one, then stops, and cocks his head curiously. “Something about you is … different.”

Imelda ticks an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Is it the extra appendages?”

“Ah, that must be it. I was going to guess something with your hair.” He crouches. “Hola, hola, Rogir. And — I don’t believe I’ve met you.”

“I’m Rogir too!” declares Maria, a five-year-old in ringlets officially from the bride’s household but who’d been foisted off on Imelda before she’d even been there five minutes, so their parents could drink and gossip. “Call me Rogir. I’m going to be a boy, boys have all the fun.”

Héctor considers this.

“But girls get to have skirts,” he points out, and uses a glass to gesture towards the courtyard, the swirl and kicked-up heels of the dancers, the whooping of the musicians. Imelda reaches down and snags the glass from him. “Those are fun!”

Arms around Imelda’s waist, Rogir peeks at the dancers and crinkles his nose dubiously.

“Not really,” Maria whines. “You can’t have any fun because they get dirty and you can’t go anywhere. Have you ever tried to climb a fence wearing a skirt?”

“I have never tried to climb a fence wearing a skirt,” Héctor lies.

Maria hmphs.

Héctor concedes the argument, then turns to Imelda and toasts her over the kids’ heads, a quick, “¡salud!” They knock the mezcal back.

It’s like someone pinched the back of her throat between their fingers and stripped it right off.

Imelda chokes, which makes it worse, and yelps, and flaps her free hand, which makes Rogir and Maria laugh — but of course there’s no chaser, until Héctor says, “here, here, here,” and she finds his hand in hers. She catches a glimpse of salt smeared on the back of it where his tendons stand out, squeezes her eyes shut, and licks.

She tastes lime, chili salt, and underneath it, a disconcerting taste that can only be Héctor’s skin.

Slitting her watering eyes open, she sees Héctor sucking at the back of his other hand, all his features bunched painfully together like they’re trying to weather a shoot-out. She lets go of his hand and waits for it to ease, and he meets her gaze and shudders, whole-body.

Gah!” they say in unison, the emphatic shout of people who are going to do that again as soon as possible.

“So, what are you guys all doing over here?” Héctor wants to know, collecting her glass from her and setting it aside. “It’s a wedding! Why aren’t you dancing?”

“Don’t know how,” Rogir volunteers.

Héctor brightens.

That,” he declares, in a stupidly joyous way that Imelda feels on a physical level, “is easily fixed.”

The jarabe comes first, of course, letting them kick their heels against the overgrown stones — because what little kid doesn’t like taking a dance step and turning it into stomping. Then a version of the waltz that’s mostly self-explanatory. Héctor doesn’t try to teach Rogir or Maria to count beats with that one, just lets them swing each other around at dangerous velocity and says, “good, you’re doing good.”

And it might just be Imelda’s imagination — your wishful thinking, points out the part of her that sees her having fun and needs to be vicious about it — but it feels like a thinly-veiled excuse to touch each other.

Maybe that’s all dancing is, though.

She spins into his outstretched arm, lets him switch their feet.

Maria and Rogir watch them, concentrating hard. Imelda’s lips still feel strange, every ridge new and defined like they hadn’t been brought into existence until the moment they touched Héctor’s skin, and she shoves down the urge to scrub at them and focuses instead on the music.

Then —

She goes left, and so does Héctor, and they collide in the middle.

She grabs hold of his shirt to avoid pitching over his feet, and he wobbles, and next she knows, they’re pressed flush, chest-to-chest, and Imelda doesn’t know which way to go. They try in the same direction and step on each other’s feet.

“Ay — !“

“Sorry!”

She wants to laugh, because they’ve got to look ridiculous, but she can’t: every ounce of awareness is focused on the hand braced against her back, on Héctor’s face and the sheepish peek of his teeth.

God, but her heart is trying to strangle itself with proximity to his.

It’s just Héctor, she tells it, exasperated. You know Héctor. Stop this!

But her heart just tightens, murmurs back to her with a sigh, yes, yes, that’s Héctor.

Behind them, the children are openly laughing at them.

“I don’t want to do it like that!” Rogir exclaims.

You can’t even do it!” Maria adds, and they’re off again, giggling.

Their voices buzz at the back of her awareness. Imelda stands there, awkwardly braced on her tiptoes, and she desperately, desperately wants for him to kiss her cheek, her neck, anywhere, it doesn’t matter: she’s airless, skin aching, like the trunks of pine trees splitting for want of water.

It’s taking too long, and so she sees it, up close: Héctor’s eyes widening fractionally, and the way the corner of his mouth lifts, tugged in her direction like she’s somehow hooked it close. He looks like he’s got a question.

Oh, no. No, no.

Imelda shakes herself roughly and looks down at her feet, tries to listen to the music, but her next step is hideously off-beat.

“Wait, wait,” she says. “Now I’m all confused.”

“Me too,” Héctor admits, cheerily enough. “But it’s confused with momentum!”

She arches her eyebrows at him.

“A confusion that’s going somewhere,” he continues, undaunted. “It’s confused with two people, and that makes all the difference, right, niños?”

We’ll do it,” says Maria with a vexed, full-body sigh that you can only really pull off at five.

Héctor makes his eyes very big and nods back to her. “Okay, yes, you show us.”

Rogir and Maria step up and clasp hands with each other — and immediately start bouncing in a circle, with conviction.

Héctor scratches his chin, contemplates it.

He looks to Imelda, who’s still suffering from the acute problem of not knowing what to do with every part of her body, and says to her, “You know, it’s got merit.”

“I like it,” Imelda agrees, and, “one of you, come dance with me.”

 

*

 

At the end of the night, she goes to kiss her cousin the groom good-bye.

“Imeldit-ti-ti-ta!” he choruses at her, a dark-flushed color coming up under the skin of his cheeks like veins in a leaf, the way it always does when he’s drunk too much. “Thank you so much, I didn’t know you had such a lovely voice!”

I don’t think anyone did, Imelda thinks.

Which is surprising. It’s not like she ever tried to hide it. It’s just that nobody had been listening.

She joins Héctor, who’s loitering with another group of party-goers trying unsuccessfully to say good-bye, and together they all spill out into the night.

It’s late enough that San Juan Albán has been nearly obliterated, the cloud come down to earth and pulled up over the mountainside, tucked in practically to its chin. The fog is so thick that even the bright candy buildings are hard to see, and the smell is as familiar to Imelda as her own is, a dampness like flowers left in a vase to rot.

In short order, the others pull away from them and become lost to view, until all that remains of them are snatches of disembodied laughter.

Then it’s just her and Héctor, and the cloud forest.

She looks at him sidelong. He isn’t carrying any of the music school’s equipment with him; they must be coming back in the morning to fetch it. She’s already scripting the remark she’ll make about it, next they meet up. Don’t trust you to count the right number of stands, then? Not after mezcal.

She could say it now, but she doesn’t want to break the silence. It’ll keep.

“Imelda,” Héctor says suddenly.

“What?”

“Señorita,” he says.

What?” Imelda says.

“Can I borrow something?”

Imelda grimaces. Here we go, she thinks. Back to normal.

She doesn’t look back. “What is it?”

“A kiss,” he says.

She keeps walking. It doesn’t immediately register — her mind skips on ahead, wondering which drawer she’ll have to pull that out of, and if he’ll wait.

Then she stutters to a stop. She turns and stares.

One side of his mouth dimples at her.

“I promise I’ll give it right back,” he singsongs to her, tucking his hands behind his back.

Imelda says nothing. She can’t.

There’s something inside her throat, something both similar and entirely unlike the nerves that overtook her before singing. Where that had constricted in her, took her in a stranglehold and twisted her down into a knot of herself, this expands, and expands, until she doesn’t think her skin will contain it. There’s no way it could. She is twice of herself, trying to exist in one body; she can feel her heartbeat in her fingers, it’s so big.

She reaches out. Her hand covers Héctor’s chest. She feels bone, skin, the material of his shirt pulled loosely across both, and she pushes him back a step.

Then she pushes him back a second step — then three, four, five, all in a rush, stumbling over uneven stones until his heel bumps peeling tangerine paint.

His back flattens up against a wall. Somebody’s home. Doesn’t matter whose.

Ow,” puffs out of him at the impact. “Hey —“

Imelda doesn’t wait to hear it.

She closes her eyes and aims with her mouth and does her very best to hit something.

Héctor makes a small noise, startled and stifled, like he’d been stepped on. With difficulty, he worms a hand up between their bodies and takes hold of her chin, adjusting the position of her mouth and then his over hers and —

Oh.

Oh, oh.

This can’t still be kissing, can it? No, she likes it too much — it’s got to be something else.

With a faint noise, she wraps her arms around his neck, fists a hand against the back of his head to hold him still. It’s several minutes before either of them surface.

“You know,” and Imelda’s still got his face so close that it’s less of a face at this proximity and more just parts: overlarge nose, in the way; mouth, trying to say something, that’s obnoxious. “I would have settled for a kiss on the cheek. And — mmph? — tried to woo you up to proper kissing — mm — from there.”

Imelda pulls back. His expression comes into focus; earnest, eyebrows lifted like they’re trying to peek over a fence.

“Seriously,” he informs her, flushed and breathless. His mouth looks like it’s been spread, messy and haloed with color, and Imelda keeps darting looks at it, fascinated. “There were going to be letters.”

“I,” she says, with dignity. “Have never wasted time on anything I did not want.”

He blinks.

“Oh,” comes out of him, very faint.

“Whole-heartedly,” Imelda presses, in case he missed the point.

“Yes,” he agrees, still with that dazed look. “All right.”

And Imelda Consequela Flores has never had anything in her life before this that was for her, just for her, not hand-me-down from anybody else, and so when Héctor Rivera turns them on their heels and flattens her against a stranger’s house in the cloud forest, her chest to his chest — it is all entirely new.

She opens her mouth against his mouth. She swallows his kiss — and she does so with the greedy, expanding joyousness that only comes with having been viciously overlooked, all your life.

 

*

 

“Imelda,” one of her aunt’s husbands catches her on the stairs. “My wife wanted to see you. Would you go to her?”

“Oh,” says Imelda with surprise — her Tía María Rosa is not known for taking an interest in the goings-on of any member of her household younger than forty. This can’t bode well. But she says, “yes, of course,” and climbs back down the staircase to go up the main one, where the heads of household sleep.

Tía María Rosa is on her third set of Hail Marys when Imelda gently eases her door open, perched on her kneeler under the window like a particularly ungainly species of bird on its most comfortable roost. Her fingers nibble up her rosary, bead-by-bead.

At the end of the set, she turns her head.

“Tío said you wanted to see me?” Imelda ventures.

“Hmmm?” Tía María Rosa smacks her lips. “No? It wasn’t me. But I think your primo … ah, the big one? Was asking around for you.”

“Which one?” Imelda says politely. “Big one” describes all of them.

“Face like a horse.”

“Oh. Ines? My prima Ines?”

“Is she?” Tía María Rosa says vaguely. “Could have fooled me.”

“Ach,” mutters Imelda her breath, but she says, “thank you, Tía,” and eases the door closed behind her.

“No, that wasn’t me,” says Ines when Imelda gets to her. She’s saddling up a gelding for a patiently waiting client, who tips his hat as Imelda goes by, says no thank you señorita when Imelda perfunctorily asks if he would like any breakfast. “But your brothers were dashing about looking for you.”

“They just saw me,” Imelda protests, now edging out of “inconvenienced” straight into “annoyed.” “I’ve got my own work to do, you know!”

Ines shrugs, unconcerned. The gelding chuffs a laugh. She scowls at him.

She circles back around the stables, squeezing through the bustle in the kitchen and going up the narrow staircase behind the pantry. With breakfast cooking, it’s sweltering, and sweat prickles at her forehead and under her blouse.

“Not that we aren’t always glad to see you, Imelda,” says her brother Óscar.

“Little sister,” adds her brother Felipe.

“But we know where to find you.”

“We wouldn’t waste your time.”

“That’s nice,” says Imelda, whose time has already been wasted.

“But tell us!” Felipe says, in the manner of their most nosy aunts. He wraps his arms around her shoulder. “How goes your, ah, assignations with the young musician?”

“There are no such things,” Imelda responds, droll, and wiggles free.

Óscar, waiting for her, captures her and pulls her under his arm instead. “Are you sure? I would have expected you to chew him up by now.”

“Not interested in that, either.”

Inside her, her guts make a valiant attempt to knot themselves up at once, just at the thought.

She hasn’t seen Héctor in five days, not since she tried to eat his heart by way of his face, and Imelda’s moods keeps seesawing between a keen, everyone-knows sense of humiliation, because how can she be the kind of girl that does that, and satisfaction that she’d gotten her chance and didn’t hesitate.

She squirms out of Óscar’s hold. “If it wasn’t you, then who am I supposed to be haring after?”

The twins exchange a look.

“I don’t know,” Felipe says.

“Did you already talk to whoever it was who was shouting for you in the courtyard?” Óscar says.

“Who? No,” says Imelda, vexed. The courtyard is the one place she hasn’t been.

She cuts back through the kitchen — empty, now, except for her mother, and Imelda offers her cheek for a kiss as she flies by, saying, “hi, Mamá, where’d everyone go?” but her mother arrests her momentum, pinwheeling them around and holding her at arm’s length.

“Ay, mija,” she says, softly, and touches Imelda’s baby hair where it’s starting to show again, “when did you get so pretty? God knows you didn’t get it from me.”

And maybe it’s because Imelda feels pulled in all directions by too many conflicting parts, but she doesn’t think to curb her tongue.

“Mamá,” she says sternly, “you are the most beautiful person in this household, it’s not your fault you married into a family of miserable old toads,” and slips away while her mother’s too shocked to reprimand her.

A huge burst of sound greets her as soon as she steps out from under the awning.

“AY!”

Imelda curses, and recoils.

For a second, she thinks everyone’s here, but of course they’re not — it’s not possible to get every Consequela in the same place at the same time except once a year for Christmas Eve Mass. This is just everyone who could conceivably be rousted out of the house — her brothers, and a sampling of her uncles, aunts, and cousins. It just looks like a crowd.

And at the center of it all —

Héctor Rivera waves at her, quick and held down close to his body, like he’s not sure of its welcome.

Ah, Imelda thinks.

Of course.

“Imelda Consequela,” he calls to her, grandly, in front of all her family.

“Are you the reason I’ve been running around like a fool!” she shouts back.

He clasps his hands to his heart.

“Did you hear that?” he says, in a carrying whisper. “She’s a fool about me!”

And laughter ripples through the gathered Consequelas.

She’ll give him this: for someone who’s always playing up that he’s a penniless orphan, he knows exactly how families work. He pulled them into a plot, made it a game, and in their delight over getting to pull a fast one over Imelda, they won’t band together against him.

“Imelda,” Héctor says again. “Would you like to take a walk around the plaza with me?”

Imelda scratches the end of her nose.

“Do I have to?” she calls back, and grins when her whole family shouts at her in indignation.

And so from that moment on, it’s understood that Imelda Consequela Flores and Héctor Rivera have an understanding.

 

*

 

“I will tolerate it,” her uncle declares, because if there’s anyone who can be counted upon to descend from on high to offer his opinion when it’s least wanted or appreciated, it’s her uncle Consequela, whom everyone mockingly calls “Señor Consequela” behind his back because there’s never been someone less deserving of the title “Don” in town history. He stands over her, hands tugging his vest closed over his big keg of a chest, propped precariously on top of his skinny little legs. “So long as you understand you will not bring him to me as a marriage prospect.”

“I’m seventeen, Tío,” Imelda responds. “I’m not interested in husbands.”

 

*

 

Here is what you need to know about Imelda’s husband Héctor:

1. He was born the second oldest of seven. When he was very young, President Díaz sent his porfiristas to smoke out the rebels in Oaxaca sabotaging his attempts to complete the coastal-interior railroad. They corrupted the water supply by crossing it with the offal from the town slaughterhouse, hoping the illness would flush the rebels out — but without knowing it would then compound on top of a food supply already spoiled and dwindling, and the camp’s poor drainage. One hundred and eleven people died, including Héctor’s mother, his four brothers, and two sisters. This left Héctor with his father, a man much more comfortable with the theoretical concept of rearing children than the actual, who took it upon himself to never miss an opportunity to remind Héctor how much he wished all his other children survived. By virtue of not being around to prove him otherwise, they were automatically preferable.

2. He carries only one clear memory of his father: blanket pulled around his shoulders, bent inside the kitchen door under their framed Madonna, their Juárez. Carefully, one-by-one, he straightens the seven pairs of shoes sitting heels-back against the wall.

3. His mamá had a single gold tooth of which she was very proud, and there are days when he cannot quite remember her face, the topography and bumpy terrain of her nose and cheeks, but he’s never forgotten that tooth. For lack of any photographs or portraits, he puts her on his guitar, and that becomes his ofrenda.

4. He was three and a half weeks shy of his twenty-second birthday. His best friend walked him to the station.

5. His corpse grew cold in the street where it fell.

 

*

 

He’s been dead for thirty years before he meets a group of synchronized swimmers among Los Olvidados, the nearly forgotten, who teach him how to swim.

Their whole afterlives they’ve spent in separate places with their separate families, but now even that’s faded away, and the only person left who remembers them is an old woman packaging cocoa beans in Chiapas who saw them perform once when she was a very little girl, who remembers their faces in perfect detail and can still conjure the admiration she felt watching them desperately suck in air through their smiling teeth and wet eyelashes without ever breaking formation.

When he was new, freshly dead, he wouldn’t have believed that you could know something like that. But after awhile, you get a feeling for when someone in the Land of the Living is talking about you. Back when Héctor was alive, Óscar Consequela used to insist that your nose itched when people spoke of you, to which Felipe Consequela always said that no, that was when your ears burned. To Héctor, it feels like a chord right after you pluck it, a faint vibration in his chest.

So no, he has no trouble believing the swimmers can feel it, this last person on whom their whole existences depend, down to where she is and what she’s doing.

“How much longer do you think she has to live?” he asks them.

And, “do you think she’ll tell anyone about you before she goes?”

Because that’s all it takes: a story told by someone who knew you in life, passed down to those that didn’t.

They all glance at each other and shrug.

“Ask the marigolds,” they tell him.

It isn’t where they imagined themselves — of all the people they thought they’d be approaching their Final Deaths with, he doesn’t think they ever expected it to be each other, but here they are at the end, waiting for that last spark of memory to gutter out and die.

Héctor pours them drinks, and when he admits that he never learned how to swim, their solemnity flips right over into shock and they start exclaiming at once.

“Water is terrifying!” he says back to them laughingly. “I don’t know how you do it.”

Learning to swim had never been a priority in his life. He was as afraid of drowning as the next person, he supposes, but it was more that he was scared that every swallow of water he didn’t carefully inspect could be his last. Of course it could — he watched bad water kill his whole family.

The swimmers pound on the table.

“What’s stopping you now!” shouts one, who has orchids tattooed across her clavicles.

“Yeah,” another agrees, inspired. “We’ll teach you!”

A third blinks. “We will?”

“Oh, good idea —”

“We’ll even let you wear the costume if you’re lucky!”

And they fall all over each other, shrieking with laughter as Héctor sits there, smiling good-naturedly at them all.

Being nearly forgotten is a lot like being a rubber band that’s lost its elasticity. The force that ties your bones together has weakened and greyed with neglect. His friend Yun used to joke that it made him look like tasteless old chewing gum — finally, his looks matched his personality! Many of the finer motor skills get lost, and Héctor learns quickly to pop the bottles before he offers any drinks, after seeing one too many people struggle as their knuckles, shoulders, or elbows dislocate with the effort of removing a cork. One of the swimmers has gotten so bad she can’t open doors — her body just pulls itself backward off her arm, and the door doesn’t budge. Héctor sees this, and develops a sudden solicitous streak.

To teach him, they take him to their favorite place, where several different swimming pools have been cut horizontally out of the side of one of the skyscrapers, cascading into one another. They start him off in the kiddie pool, where, of course, most of the children are older than him and paddle over to help demonstrate.

As a skeleton, he’s lost all his natural webbing that would have helped him learn to do this while alive, so they help him fit his feet with flippers and his hands with this curious, amphibian-like film.

He throws himself into their lessons, always the first one in the water and the last one out of it, teeth gritted against the sensation.

“What’s got you so fired up?” asks the swimmer with the orchids, sitting along the edge of the pool and giving his arm a gentle kick. “You trying to become a long distance swimmer?”

Héctor flashes her a smile that’s all teeth.

“Who says I can’t just want to impress the loveliest women I’ve ever met?”

“Oh, psh,” she says, amused.

“No, I’m serious. It’s a very high bar.”

“Ay, primas, come dunk him!”

“Uh oh,” says Héctor, and scrambles, but there’s no point in trying to out-race a synchronized swimming team.

This goes on for weeks, and then one day he climbs down the ladder and picks his way across the planks to the hovel they’ve all crowded into, and finds it abandoned. Not locked up, like they’re out, but the peculiar, unwelcome feeling of an unoccupied place, full of shadows and scraps of newspapers too damp to read.

That November, as he watches the marigold bridge pour across the sky from the Land of the Dead to touch down in the Land of the Living, Héctor pulls on his flippers, his amphibian film.

He waits until the first stream of falling petals illuminates the surface of the water.

Then he takes a deep breath, and dives.

The Department of Afterlife Affairs slap him with a hefty fine for it, of course, but first they have to fish up all of his bits, and it’s weeks before he stops coming screamingly awake in the middle of the night, dreaming of the shapes coming at him from under the surface. As people are forgotten, so too are alebrijes; devoid of color, of fur and feathers and skin, until all that’s left is their teeth and their eyes, and Héctor jolts himself out of sleep already choking. The crossing guards had chased him down two to a longboat, one with a net and the other with a harpoon, both wearing heavy plate.

Despite this, he goes down to the shore with a bottle two weeks later. Crouching among the detritus and the washed-up silt, where not even the marigold light touches, he makes a toast to the swimmers.

“Gracias, primas,” he calls, and drinks, and thinks, next year, a boat. And a harpoon.

 

*

 

Héctor had been eight years old before he saw any body of water bigger than a bathtub, and that’s when the sisters took the orphanage kids up into the foothills, trying to escape the heat that had Santa Cecilia baked to its own stones like burnt-on masa.

Further up, the river was a crashing, white-water monster, but half-way down into the valley it met a depression where it pooled, slowing down. It was misleadingly deep, which of course meant it took less than five minutes for them to start daring each other to jump in as soon as the nuns’ backs were turned.

Héctor wanted nothing to do with it — if just a little bit of water could kill his whole family, he couldn’t imagine what a big amount of water would do. That’s, like, really dead.

So he hung back, climbed one of the mesquite trees and watched the ants work on its trunk until it got too hot to do even that. Careful of the thorns, he got back down and rolled his trousers up, planning to just sit at the shallowest point and kick his feet around, except two of the older boys saw their chance.

They rushed at him — he’d been half-crouched at the edge, off-balance, and saw them coming too late.

Hey — !”

With one quick heave, they shoved him off the rock, and he went down flailing.

He hit the water splay-legged. His limbs locked, turned rigid, and with seemingly impossible swiftness, he sunk straight to the bottom. He lost sight of the surface, the froth that the other swimming kids kicked up —

— and that probably would have been that.

If not for Ernesto.

He didn’t know anything about him then, other than he was one of the de la Cruzes — an orphan with no family name of his own, who took the church’s name by default. At twelve, he was already bigger than most of the other kids had a prayer of being in their entire lives (Héctor included, honestly,) and while the boys were still standing on the rock, chortling to themselves and not yet realizing that Héctor wasn’t coming back up, he stood up. Without a word, he pushed them aside and dove.

It was a clean, arrowheaded dive, taking him down far enough in one stroke to grab Héctor by the shirttails, plant his feet against the silt and rock, and propel them back upwards. He flung them out of the water.

“Why are you friends with those idiots?” he demanded, when Héctor finally stopped coughing.

“I’m not!” Héctor replied, too indignant to keep wheezing.

“Good,” he said, succinctly, and, “you’re welcome,” even though Héctor hadn’t said thank you, and they were friends just like that.

Héctor forgot about that incident, specifically — not because it wasn’t significant, but because it becomes the theme of their whole friendship. One of them leaping, or falling, or getting unceremoniously shoved, and the other putting his hands in arrowhead formation and jumping after.

The connection’s been made, between Ernesto and life, Ernesto and death.

The first thing Ernesto ever did was steal him from the jaws of death, so Ernesto’s got to be the one to hand him back. Héctor Rivera cannot die if Ernesto de la Cruz is not there, he’s sure of it.

Imelda has a point, though; by staying underfoot, he’s making it a likelihood.

Ach, what was it the Mother Superior said about street dogs?” Ernesto says in exasperation.

“They’ll follow you forever! You’re stuck with me. We’re growing old together, amigo, sorry!”

Ernesto rolls his eyes, and Héctor smiles so wide it shows every last tooth.

 

*

 

And so he does not think, never questions it, not even once, when José Oscar Reyes de Silva, the case worker assigned to him by the Department of Family Reunions, sets his clipboard aside and says, “looks like it was something you ate or drank, muchacho,” because of course it was.

Of course it was.

This death was waiting for him, it was always waiting for him, ever since it got his mother, and got his siblings, and missed him. It only had to be patient until he turned his head.

He tells people it was food poisoning, it was the chorizo, because he cannot bear the idea that it had been the water, or even the drink he shared with Ernesto. That his whole life, he’d been so careful to avoid what killed his family, but it came for him anyway.

That this is what robbed him of Coco — this miserable, awful, porfirista-cursed luck.

 

*

 

When you die, there’s a grace period between death and burial, where you exist …

Well, actually, Héctor has no idea where you exist. Somewhere between the two lands, maybe?

Traveling. Yeah, traveling!

After your death but before your burial, when you’re traveling, and the Department of Family Reunions assigns you a case worker to prepare for your arrival. There’s no real easy way to do that — some papel picado, maybe, a little shake of the maracas, a quick, ay, ding dong, you’re dead! Bienvenidos! and then you’re hustled on before you really have time to panic at the sight of your own exposed, white bones.

Héctor’s case worker, though physically only about thirty or so, says he’s old enough to remember a time when Mexico called itself an empire — no, not that time, the one before that. Curlique patterns in blue and purple mimic a dandy mustache above his lip, and deftly, almost without Héctor being aware of it, he moves him from calling him “Señor Reyes” to “José” to “Pepé” in about fifteen minutes flat.

“No,” Héctor keeps insisting, “no, you don’t understand, I was just there.”

“I understand,” Pepé answers, propelling him firmly forward. “But now you’re here, and I’ll get you through this introductory bit.”

“Okay,” says Héctor vaguely, craning his head to look at the door.

It all feels like it’s happening to someone else, like it’s a performance Héctor’s been roped into by virtue of the fact he was standing too close to the stage, and he has no idea how to improvise. There’s nothing to do but to let Pepé steer him and wait for a chance to get back to what he’s supposed to be doing — the train station, Santa Cecilia, Coco.

These bones, though … they sure do make for an odd costume.

Huh.

Best not to look at that too closely.

He’s taken to a room and allowed to pick out his look. This includes his glass eyeballs (which are, strangely, unnecessary for sight, but after Pepé plucks his out and twirls them in his palm to prove a point, Héctor agrees it’s probably best for everyone if you have a pair you can point in the direction you need to instead of just letting everyone wander around with hollow sockets all the time,) his hairpieces, his clothes. The fashions are several years out of date, but the quality is fine, and there’s a rack of skirts and blouses here, too. Héctor’s willing to bet they’re all in his size.

He darts an inquiring look at Pepé, who says, “All part of the el santo system. Do you have that yet in the Land of the Living?”

“Can’t say that we do,” Héctor responds, politely.

“The Land of the Dead runs on memories. It is the responsibility of those in the Land of the Living to remember us — we cannot exist without them. Likewise, the Land of the Living cannot exist without the Land of the Dead to feed it our light, and we generate that light with our works. So,” he presses, when Héctor just looks at him blankly, wondering what this has to do with him — he’s not dead, what a funny notion. “It’s in the best interests of everyone that you live your very best death here, and that means without artifice, or shame.”

Héctor pulls one of the skirts out from the rack, spreading the fabric across his thigh. His bony foot sticks out from under the hem.

(He’d seen a diagram once, of the human skeletal system with everything labeled in neat, legible Latin. Whatever rules this dream follows, it’s taking that diagram very seriously, because without skin Héctor’s hands are all fingers, his feet all toes. It’s weird to see.)

After a pause, Pepé adds, gentler, “If some trick of the flesh kept you from living openly in the Land of the Living … well, that doesn’t matter anymore. Flesh cannot dictate who you are. Wear the skirts if they feel right, Héctor.”

And Héctor blinks, surprised and oddly touched.

It’s a nice thought. He’ll have to tell Ernesto and Imelda about it when he wakes up.

The process of having his hair and beard adjusted gives Pepé time to contact the household he’ll be staying with — the delay, of course, is to give him time to decide what he wants, and whose household he wants to join. You can refuse your family upon arrival. You can even forge your own. It’s that curious el santo principle again.

“I have a family,” he tells Pepé, for what feels like the hundredth time. “My wife, Imelda. My daughter, Coco — her birthday’s soon, or maybe I missed it. How long have I been here? I can’t miss it, Pepé.”

“Of course, my friend,” Pepé answers, unflappable, and turns his logbook around. “But this is your household, yes?”

“They’re my family, too,” he agrees, glancing at it, “but they’re —”

— dead, he almost says, except his throat closes up before he gets the word out. It’s not really funny anymore.

Eventually, they finish the paperwork and leave the honeycomb offices, and Héctor gets his first glimpse of the Department of Family Reunions.

It’s the grandest building he’s ever seen, so big it feels almost unreal, like a cross between a train terminal, an opera house, and the kind of glass cathedral he’s only ever seen in picture books. He has no idea how he got here — this should have been visible for miles, no matter which road you took to get into Mexico City. A building like this would be smack dab in the center of everything. He steps up to the railing, dazed. It’s hard to focus on the people he sees crawling around down below (although there are quite a lot of interesting hats — he wants Imelda here, so he can nudge her and she could flatten her mouth back at him, unappreciative of the joke,) and looks for a long time instead at the stained glass window at the far end; the open eyes with their flower-patterned sockets, the grinning skull mouth.

“Come on, Héctor,” says Pepé from behind him, slipping a hand under his elbow and giving a gentle tug. “This way.”

He leads him through another door, where a row of people are lined up, waiting. They turn.

They’re all skeletons, too.

These costumes keep getting more elaborate, that’s interesting, and Héctor’s about to say, “pardon me, folks,” when the woman in front steps forward, and —

— and something about the way she walks, adjusting her weight, makes everything in Héctor go suddenly, abruptly still.

Though by no means a tiny woman, she only comes up to his chin, and she wears a bandolier slantwise across her chest. Her skirts are dark and weathered brown, her blouse embroidered in the insurgente tricolor. Her hair sits piled high on top of her head, and faint turquoise designs frame her high cheekbones.

But it isn’t until her face splits into a smile, revealing the wink of a single gold tooth on her right side, that recognition strikes him.

It cuts him clean through. It flays him right down to —

Well. To the bone.

“Mamá?” Héctor whispers, no louder than a single thread, cut.

He looks from her to the — yes, to the six smaller skeletons behind her. The oldest only comes up to her elbow, the youngest still a swaddled shape in arms.

His brothers. His sisters.

Oh my god, Héctor thinks. I’m dead. Díos, Santa Maria, todos los santos, I’m dead.

“Oh. There you are,” Mamá Rivera says briskly, as if she’d done nothing more than temporarily misplace him at the market but it was fine now. “Héctor, what are you doing over there? Come here.”

And to Héctor’s profound embarrassment, he bursts into tears.

Half-blinded, he goes to her at a run.

 

*

 

Of the three stables that make up the bulk of the Consequela property, the biggest one is also the busiest, where they keep the stock they rent to travelers. There are always Consequelas going in and out of that one. Then there’s the second stable, for the more reasonably-priced pack animals — the floppy-eared donkeys and the mules, for the people who don’t need a fancy horse. And the tertiary stable is where they keep everybody else, the greying nags gone sway-backed with age, the agitated mares about to drop their foals, recent acquisitions that haven’t been branded yet.

Usually, that means there’s always empty stalls. Imelda knows them all.

It takes several long moments to come back to herself — she swears, she swears there’s a moment there at the very peak of it where she thinks she could grab hold of the light itself and pull it like it’s dough. When she can breathe again, she finds she’s got her fingers twisted to a stranglehold in Héctor’s hair.

She relaxes her grip, rubbing the knot at the base of his skull in mute apology.

He shifts his cheek against hers.

“Was that good?” he murmurs — without a trace of smugness, something Imelda loves him terribly for right now.

Besides, she can be smug enough for the both of them.

We’re getting better at that, she thinks. He’s learning, and so is she, how not to immediately chase that feeling right off the edge, clumsy and too quick to be enjoyable, but instead how to go near it and back away, near and away, until Héctor rolls his sweaty forehead against hers and says, please, Imelda, won’t you — for me? and knocks her right off.

She lets him lazily kiss at her neck, listening to the birds rustling through their nesting material in the rafters, the mare scuffling her straw three stalls down. Then she shifts up, so he can get his hand out of her skirts and she can tug them back into place.

“Your turn,” she murmurs. “Let me know what feels best.”

“You could do anything and it’d be the best,” he answers, like he isn’t rolling his wrist to get the feeling back to it.

She snorts. “Flattering, not practical,” and, “what? What — what are you smiling about?”

She can feel the way his mouth’s curving against her temple, and you know, he can just bring himself off if the idea of her doing it is that funny, see if she cares —

“You,” he says before she can decide, and the softness, the adoration in it stops her dead. He pulls back to look at her. “Do you ever think how easily we could have missed each other? You could be anywhere, anywhere in the country, with anyone else, and instead you’re here with me — willingly.”

A beat. “How did I get so lucky?”

Inside her chest, her heart quivers like it’s been stung.

Probably by something gross, like affection.

“You got this lucky because you were trying to join a convent and I stopped you,” she tells him, all but dripping with sarcasm, and he grins back at her.

“God’s loss,” he says.

“My gain,” she agrees, because she’s the one who can feel the whole length of him against her hip, and she knows exactly what he means — of all the joys in the world, how did they find each other, here?

He’s still grinning as he leans down to kiss her, so it’s less of a kiss and more them pressing their smiles together.

Which lasts until Imelda’s hands slide down the back of his shirt, over his waistband, grabbing hold of his ass and grinding him down against her.

His breath hitches. “Oh,” he says. “Yes, let’s.”

 

*

 

When she’s older, she’ll always think of this position with fondness: hard up against the back of a stall because there wasn’t anywhere else they could go, and upright is cleaner than picking hay out of her hair. If Héctor minds the hard work of holding her up so that she can put her legs around his waist, he doesn’t complain where she can hear him.

There’s a pretense, when he walks her to her gate from the plaza, that he’s going to turn around and go straight back to the school, and they always wind up stealing time instead, here where nobody thinks to look.

“Wait — do you all have your own horses?” he asks, the first time she draws him in so they can stand at the paddock with the others, watching a cousin try to break in a recent acquisition from Don Consequela’s contact in Puebla, a buckskin stallion with a propensity for biting.

“Yes,” says Imelda, then, “no. All our horses belong to my uncle, but we identify them by who breaks them in or trains them. You’re not a Consequela until you’ve broken in your own horse.”

His elbow nudges against her bare one, deliberately.

“Do you have one?” he wants to know.

“I do,” she answers, thinking fast, “and she’s here. Would you like to meet her?”

His eyebrows hike up. “I would!”

And so she pulls him away from the paddock, past the main stable where her mare is kept and into the cool, dusty interior of the tertiary stable. It’s empty, she knows it is, since everyone’s out waiting to see if her cousin’s going to get thrown, and Imelda puts her back up against the wall by the hayhooks and tugs Héctor in.

“Mmphh,” he says, eloquently. “Wait, no — Imelda, I wasn’t trying to — that wasn’t a euphemism. I do want to meet your horse.”

“Oh,” says Imelda.

When he sways back into her, eyes on her mouth, she catches him with a hand across his collarbone and pushes him away.

Her face burns. She’d thought …

“If that’s the case —“ she starts to say, squirming to get free, and Héctor says, “no, no, no, it’s a great idea,” and they tug back and forth for a minute, while Imelda fights her embarrassment and Héctor tries to reassure her, kissing her chin and her ear and the backs of her hands when she covers her face. Then it turns into kissing for real, and that’s much better.

It does start a habit, though.

Just — she’d thought her heart would shut up, now that it got what it wanted. But it hasn’t. If anything, it’s gotten worse. It leaps and stutters and makes an utter mess of her every time. It convinces her that every moment with Héctor is the best decision they’ve ever made. She touches his wrist during practice, he lifts her against the stall door in the quiet, and her heart grinds itself to pulp inside her ribs — she kisses him and wants more, already, wants to do it again even as it’s happening.

The first time is startling, like falling down. It catches her off guard.

“What — ?” she says, floored, because all she’d done was hike herself up on Héctor’s thigh for a better angle, and the friction just — that.

Héctor pulls back to look at her, then peers closer and says with surprise, “You didn’t know?” He blinks. “But — even I learned, the older boys teased the younger until we figured it out, that’s how that works, and don’t you have cousins everywhere?”

She shakes her head. “You forget, I’m the youngest. Having me at the bottom of the pecking order means everyone gets to talk over my head.”

Shh, there are innocent ears present!

And, Ay, prima, we’ll tell you when you’re older!

“Well, that,” Héctor says succinctly, and, after a beat, moves his leg. “You can do it again, you know.”

“What,” Imelda says, in a completely different tone.

 

*

 

The loft over the last set of stalls is where Imelda used to go at eleven, twelve, when she hated everything but couldn’t find anything she hated more corrosively than herself, wanting to start at her big toe and unbutton herself all the way to her scalp and leave it somewhere until she thought she could bear to pick it up again. She’d come up here to hide — and partially to see how long it would take someone to come looking for her. She stopped doing it when the answer made her feel flattened out, her insides puddled and turned to a bog.

So she knows you can go undisturbed for ages if you’re careful, so that’s where she takes Héctor when he finishes that conversation by saying, “I can do it too,” and, tentatively, “do you want to … see? I can show you,” and Imelda says, “that’s a euphemism?” and he says, “Imelda, I’m serious.” Five minutes later they’re up a ladder and she hears herself saying things like, “the ceiling is a lot lower than I remember it,” and, “careful where you sit, Emilio spilled a tub of nails up here and I don’t think he picked them all up,” and in the haydust and the near-gloom, he balances on top of a large overturned crate, his flies undone and pushed out of the way just far enough. It’s as slender and coltish as the rest of him, and when it hardens it’s longer than she thought it’d be, its color darker than the rest of his skin like it can blush. This is the quietest she’s ever had him, but she can tell when he does something he likes by the way his thighs jump, his breath catching. Without meaning to, she reaches down, brushing the tops of his legs with her fingertips, and it’s like every inch of skin hitches towards her at once. It’s almost as nice as making him laugh.

“Is this weird?” she whispers — it feels like she should whisper. “Am I making you uncomfortable? I can,” she gestures, but doesn’t know what to offer. Turn around? Go away? Both would defeat the purpose of being up here.

“No,” says Héctor quickly, biting his lip. “No, no — the, ah, the opposite, actually. I like having you here. Ah! Honestly, I like having you anywhere.”

“Okay,” says Imelda helplessly, and presses her thighs together.

He covers his eyes with an arm, and unthinkingly she grabs it and pulls it away again, wanting to see his face, all of it, and doesn’t think about what it will mean, having the whole thing tipped up to her: wide eyes, parted mouth, the same dark color staining his ears. She stops breathing.

“I’m not going to last long at all,” he tells her, watching. He sounds rueful about it.

“Are you supposed to?”

“It’s better if you can build it up, but if you’re in a hurry and don’t have time for a wind-up —“ instinctively, they both glance towards the edge of the loft.

“I don’t think I had any build-up,” Imelda says thoughtfully, and there’s something raw in Héctor’s voice when he says, “we can try again, on purpose,” and this time, doesn’t miss the sound she makes when she squeezes her legs together, and he looks up at her looking back at him with interest, and he says, “oh,” and, “oh, god,” thick with something she’d never heard before, and throws his head back, slapping a hand to the wall behind him, and gasps, and —

 

*

 

She goes to bed that night and wakes up the next morning to the screech of the first steam engine coming into the trainyard behind Casa Consequela, wanting desperately to do it again, as soon as possible.

Like having heard a new song, or seen a painting she’d never seen before, it’s stuck in her head. All day, she fidgets distractedly and suppresses a laugh whenever a man passes her going in any direction, because she knows, now, what they’ve all got in their britches, and when it’s not hard it’s floppy and soft like her naked baby cousins’, and she’ll never take any of them seriously ever again.

No wonder men think they have to swagger everywhere they go. She’d puff herself up too, if she had something that ridiculous that needed defending.

God, though, as much as she wants to laugh, she wants to feel it again even more.

And she can — that’s the best part of it all. She can have that, and Héctor, too.

Her hair gets washed and oiled that week, and as her mother helps her twist it up with rags, she takes the opportunity to remind her not to be alone with men, to let her brothers do their jobs. Her aunts frown over her preoccupation and tell her that infatuation is all well and good, but she’s got her virtue to think about. Her cousins tease her about her humming and make sly remarks that Imelda doesn’t understand, until one day she does.

But none of that is out of the norm.

And it has nothing to do with what she does with Héctor.

There’s nothing here to warn about, nothing that’s going to hurt her, so they can’t be talking about this: Héctor’s hands under her thighs, the both of them sweaty-palmed, slippery with eagerness. The ease and, sometimes, the ridiculous comedy of trying to get him inside of her, laughing their way through the silly parts with their mouths pressed together, half-kissing, half-breathing —

— all of it its own virtue, seen by God and no other.

What is there to be ashamed of, here?

 

*

 

Ernesto is given exactly one job, and that’s to run interference. He thinks it’s hilarious.

“There’s a word for that,” Imelda says to Héctor.

“I think it’s ‘pontificate’,” he says promptly, peering around the corner, and she quirks her mouth and says, “is it? My mother just calls it bullshitting,” and he agrees, “Doña Flores is a very astute woman. Either way, that speech gives us exactly three minutes of distraction, and we’ll need one minute of it to escape, so how are we going to use the rest?” and she says, “not by wasting it,” and pulls his head down to hers.

But for all their care (and, admittedly, the lack of it sometimes,) they almost get caught once.

It’s an aunt’s husband, a reedy fellow with a good tenor voice who gave Imelda a lesson in saddle care when she asked, and a few times when she didn’t, and he’s half-way down the aisle before she even realizes he’s there. She digs her nails in.

Too late to hide. Too late to shove her skirts down. Too late to even pull Héctor out —

“Yes, yes, I see you,” her uncle’s voice says.

Héctor’s breath hitches and he freezes, Imelda pinned between his front and the stall. She can almost feel the heart attack he’s having, and shakes her head mutely: her uncle’s talking to the gelding on the end, he’s got to be.

He pulls back to look at her, eyes bugging out.

That’s not reassuring! What if he gets suspicious? What if he investigates? She’s still got her legs up around his — his pants are — !

She puts a hand over his mouth, and the shift of her blouse suddenly seems like the loudest thing in the world. She doesn’t want to hear about his buttocks hanging out — it’s more important that they don’t make a sound. How they get found isn’t as important as not getting found in the first place!

The gelding whinnies demandingly.

“Well, that’s not helping your case,” her uncle replies in a conversational tone. Is he any closer? She can’t tell.

Her heart is a throbbing, tectonic weight in her throat, pumping adrenaline so hard she can taste her own tongue. Héctor breathes silently against her palm.

This close, every one of his eyelashes stand out in relief. She traces them with her eyes to the damp hairs at his temple, then to that line of freckles on his neck she is absolutely stupid for. And to think, just months ago her insides were chewing themselves to bits with desperate hope that he might kiss her. Now they’re one darkened stall away from being caught in a compromising position by an aunt’s husband, and Imelda still has room to be fond about it.

She can feel Héctor shaking with the effort of holding her up. She slides her hand across his shoulder, tucking her thumb under the strap of his suspenders, which have gone slack since his pants are — not clipped in. Carefully, she hikes herself up, trying to take some of her weight from him.

His jaw clenches under her fingers. The drag reminds her how close they’d both been, before the interruption.

“No, not that — “ and something heavy hits the ground, further down the stables, followed by loud clanking, and a curse.

Héctor widens his eyes at her, warning.

She shakes her head. No — ! She’s not trying to do anything, she’s just trying to help. He doesn’t get to be a donkey about it, who’s the one who hasn’t gone soft yet, because it’s not her —

Annoyed now, she tightens her grip on his shoulders and does it again, deliberately. The wood at her back sighs.

The whites of Héctor’s eyes show.

She bends her head, presses her mouth to the back of her hand where it’s still covering his.

One beat, and another, and his eyelashes flutter. He moves his lips against her palm, and tilts his head so their foreheads bump together on the next little thrust. As willing to trust her as the day they broke into the convent, before they knew each other at all. Hasn’t stopped trusting her — even here, even now.

And just like that, she’s there.

No! she thinks at her body in alarm. Don’t! Not now!

Héctor realizes what’s happening in the same moment: his grip turns hard with renewed terror, shaking his head urgently enough to dislodge her hand, and she tries to hold herself still — if there’s no friction, she won’t — but it’s too late, she’s already falling.

This part, Imelda thinks, has always felt like the moment an egg yolk bursts; a startled pouring rush of feeling, a taste behind her teeth.

Her thighs shake, and then stop holding her altogether. Héctor stumbles, caught by the abrupt shift in their center of gravity and trying to brace their weights —

— a scuffle, precarious tipping —

— and someone’s boot bangs hard against the stall as they tumble down, making the whole line rattle.

She hits the ground. Her teeth scissor into her tongue.

Shit!

Oh, shit.

A loud snort comes from the gelding on the end. He kicks back, sending the stalls swaying the other direction, to the annoyance of the mares who vocalize it.

“Settle down, settle down,” says her uncle’s voice incuriously.

Imelda and Héctor stay absolutely, paralyzingly still, sprawled where they fell. Héctor’s eyes are a wide smear of reflected light in the gloom, his clothes in disarray, and Imelda’s body tingles with her rapidly-fading rush. Her ears buzz with terror.

“— we go,” she hears, and a grunt from her uncle as he heaves something jangling and heavy over his shoulders.

His boots scuff down the aisle.

The door creaks.

And … he’s gone.

With identical groans of relief, they sag against each other. Imelda lets her head fall back against the dirt, momentarily not even caring about hay. Talk about compromising positions!

Héctor untangles himself from her and stands up.

“You didn’t …” Imelda says, because he’s tucking himself away. “You’re not still …”

He jerks his chin at her, indignant.

“My life just flashed in front of my eyes!” he hisses. “I was imagining just how painful my imminent death was going to be!”

Laughing, Imelda accepts his hand up and shakes her skirts out.

“You know,” she says, lifting her eyebrows, “some people find that sort of danger …”

“Not me!” he flashes at her. “You’re loco!”

She starts laughing for real: helplessly, soundlessly, with her whole body, and as she starts to double over he grabs her around the waist to hold her up, shaking his head.

The expression on his face is incredulous, wondering, and indescribably fond, and Imelda feels altogether strange about it, like if you took her and peeled her off like an orange rind, there he’d be underneath, visible in the pulp of her.

Héctor Rivera has, in short order, become one of the most important people in her life.

 

*

 

The announcement comes in on the next train: an election’s been called. All men of property will vote.

It’s Venustiano Carranza against nobody important, if Carranza can stay alive that long. The string of bodies between him and Mexico’s last legitimate president (1911, with Díaz, if you ask anyone else. 1872, with Juárez, if you ask in Oaxaca,) is frankly alarming. The life expectancy of a man who wants to be president of Mexico shortens considerably the moment he takes office.

“Think about it, though,” Ernesto says wistfully. “What that would be like — playing in the city.”

“Mexico City?” Imelda mumbles, her eyes half-lidded and lazy. “Where all the armies converge? Who in their right mind wants to go there? No, thank you.”

He scuffs a look off of her, like he’s contemplating being offended, but it isn’t worth the effort.

“What,” he says back, “you want to stay here and play in the plaza all your life?”

The plaza is nothing, he means.

They’re the best thing in the plaza, and everyone knows it.

It wasn’t that long ago she was too afraid to even approach the gazebo and the mariachi, and now here she is. When she sings, everyone stops to listen: the musicians and their instruments, the innkeeper at the end of the plaza and the boys throwing slops, the nuns on horseback coming back up the trails. Even the cathedral goes still to hear them better; not even the birds move among the buttresses.

“I’m not tired of it yet,” she says, but even as she says it, she wonders if that means that Héctor and Ernesto are tired of it.

The election announcement was made in Mass that morning, and tasked with polishing the organ pipes, Imelda, Héctor, and Ernesto have been in the loft ever since.

It started out serious enough, and then dissolved into them prying the casing up so that they could see the inner workings, the bellows and couplers, and making Ernesto sit on the bench and play various combinations to see how it all came together. They know that sometimes Padre Luis sends for a man from Oaxaca City to do tuning and maintenance, since that’s much too complicated to trust to the choir kids. But a damp environment like San Juan Albán isn’t good for any instrument.

Imelda feels a lot like she’s getting away with something, being left alone with them, even though there’s no question of propriety. They’re visible from the nave, Ernesto’s with them, Padre Luis or any of the nuns can come up the stairs at any time. Nothing to see here.

Maybe it’s because they’re definitely just lounging now. Ernesto still on the bench, moving his feet across the pumps and matching his hands to the right keyboard; Héctor stretched out on their Sunday coats, drowsing, one arm lazily slung over Imelda’s hips; Imelda herself, idly twirling a lock of hair around her finger, feeling no urgent need to move.

(“But it’s Sunday,” she can already hear Héctor saying in his wheedling way. “We’re resting.”)

“Didn’t you try that before?” she ventures, quirking an eyebrow.

“Try what?” Ernesto says.

“Running away to the city?”

Héctor runs his fingers over her stomach, back and forth. It was nice at first, but now he’s got this pinched look on his face, contemplative and worried, watching his own thumb move across her blouse, and that makes it … a little weird.

She picks his hand up and shoves it back at him.

“It’ll be different now,” Ernesto says, like it’s that easy. “We’ll have you with us this time.”

Which is flattering, but —

“My family will never let that happen,” she reminds them. “An unmarried woman, traveling to who-knows-where with two mariachi? Not likely.”

They glance at each other.

“Then marry one of us,” Héctor says matter-of-factly.

Imelda snorts.

“No,” he sits up. “I’m serious, Imelda. Marry one of us, and we’ll go. They can’t stop you once you’re married, right — because you belong to a husband’s household then, not theirs?”

She shrugs equivocally. When marrying off valuable assets like his daughters or nieces, Don Consequela usually got around giving them up by assimilating the husband into the household instead, either by employing him or holding wedding debt over his head. If her uncle caught wind Héctor and Ernesto wanted her to leave the mountains with them, she doesn’t doubt he would try something similar.

They seem to be waiting for an answer, though.

Discouragingly, she says, “In theory.”

Héctor wrings his hands. Again, he skitters a nervous look at Ernesto, who makes a “carry on” motion.

“Would you … like to marry one of us?” he presses, tentative. “Me, maybe?”

Imelda frowns.

He glances left, then right, and she takes the opportunity to wipe her palms on her skirts. They’re strangely clammy.

“You’re not joking?” she checks.

“I’m not joking,” Héctor promises, and the clamminess spreads to the rest of Imelda’s body.

This seems entirely too unreal a conversation to have here, under the gleaming pipes of an organ with the smell of silver polish in her nose, in full view of the cross — but then again, maybe this is the perfect place. She needs God here, as her witness.

Next she speaks, she’s proud of how casual she manages to sound.

“Okay, but. Do you want to get married to me?”

Héctor tries to grab her hand and scoot in next to her at the same time; the combined enthusiasm of both nearly tips him to the floor.

Rapidly, he says, “Yes, yes, if you’ll have me — if you’ll let me — if your uncle will let you. Ernesto, you said you’d marry her too, right?”

“Yeah, sure,” says Ernesto, watching them carefully.

“There you go,” Héctor nods so emphatically it uses his whole body. “I want to marry you, he’s the better catch, you can pick based on what you need and then we’ll be free to go!”

He gestures and offers her that smile, the one that’s more teeth than sense.

And insight ambushes Imelda from the side, and her heart trips, hard, inside her chest, because they’ve discussed this. This is something they’ve agreed on, that Héctor might ask for Imelda’s hand and be rejected on the grounds that he’s too poor, too skinny, too much of some things and not enough of everything else, and that Ernesto, who no one in their right minds would reject if he came asking for their most throw-away daughter, volunteered to marry her so that Héctor could keep her close.

That she would be Ernesto’s wife in name, Héctor’s wife in practice, and that’s how the three of them would stay together.

She blinks at them, fast. Her heart’s plastered to the back of her throat, rolled flat.

“But … you can’t undo it. If it doesn’t work out, you can’t take it back.” She looks back and forth between them, letting Héctor anxiously squeeze her knuckles. “That’s a big risk to take just because you want me to sing with you in the city.”

Héctor bites his lip.

Behind him, Ernesto looks unperturbed.

“Well, I’m not going to marry anyone else,” he announces — but to Héctor, and in that significant voice they use with each other sometimes, when they think they’re being subtle.

“Yes, but I don’t want to marry you,” Imelda tells him shortly. “That’s a lot to ask of me. Once it’s done, I can’t take any of it back, either, you know.”

“You don’t have to,” Héctor backpedals. “It just seemed like a solution —“

“When would you want to leave?”

Héctor and Ernesto have a brief argument conducted entirely with their eyebrows. They frown.

“Next year, when the cloud lifts,” Héctor says, simultaneous with Ernesto’s, “Spring.”

Imelda’s eyebrows join the argument, making a spirited leap for her hairline.

They aren’t talking some weekend excursion, then, or to tour the way she knows some mariachi bands do. They mean to leave, permanently.

“That’s …” comes out of her, faint. “So soon.”

She’s eighteen. Her family likes Héctor because he works very hard at being likable, but bringing him up as a marriage prospect? She’s afraid they’ll laugh. Worse, she’s afraid it’ll drive her uncle to snag the next qualified man who steps off the train and hitch her to him instead.

(Honestly, she’s afraid that’ll be her fate either way. But not at eighteen. Please, not yet.)

The silence stretches. Ernesto scuffs his feet against the worn-down tracks in the wood around the bench, and Héctor laces their fingers together.

It’s such a peculiar, weighty silence that Imelda frowns, turns her head.

Héctor peeks at her hesitantly.

“You will have to get married soon, I think,” he tells her, very quiet. “Regardless.”

Imelda pulls her hand away.

“It doesn’t have to be to me, or to Ernesto,” he tilts his head. “Promise, we won’t make you. You can wait to see who your uncle will pick out for you — somebody more certain, less — odd. You can stay with your family. I’m just —“

“Don’t be stupid,” and she sounds vicious, even to her own ears. She doesn’t know what’s going on. “Don’t insult me.”

He takes a deep breath.

“My mother,” he starts, “was in a … delicate condition most of my life. One baby after another, so it goes.”

He twirls his hand around, quick, to stop her from saying anything, but Imelda’s not dense. She’s seen the drawings he leaves on Papá Figaro’s ofrenda in November, for lack of any photographs, has heard Ernesto refer to it casually before — the bad water and the dysentery that wiped out the rebel camp in Santa Cecilia, took all but Héctor and his father, who could not look at Héctor for a second after that without mourning every child who would have turned out better. Héctor had been an orphan long before the man died, a fact none of the other orphans let him forget, that they had to take the name of the cross but he got to keep his name and it didn’t make him better.

“What I’m saying is … I know what the signs are, Imelda.”

Something very strange happens in the vicinity of her stomach, a sensation like a sudden acceleration and an equally abrupt halt.

She’s on her feet without being aware of it, goes to the railing and puts her hands out for balance. She looks down at the pews, the cupola and the gold-gilt portraits of the saints, the single sanctuary light always burning. Somebody’s moving inside the room with the baptismal font — Padre Luis, maybe, or one of the nuns.

Above them, Imelda’s world is upended, everywhere.

“You think,” she says slowly. There’s a noise in her ears, like string instruments tuned perilously high. “You think I’m with child?”

“I … yes. I think you could be.”

Unbidden, her hand goes to her stomach, flattening over the same spot Héctor had been feeling. The skin there is tight, drawn up hard as a nut, which isn’t something stomachs typically do and it’d crossed her mind once or twice to be concerned, but … she’d figured it was something she ate, or some unpleasant new quirk of her monthlies.

She grits her teeth, rounding her shoulders so neither of them can see her expression.

How could he recognize this about her before she did?

But how was she supposed to know? She was never taught!

“And — that’s why we’re talking about marriage, suddenly,” she gets out. “I’ve got to get married. Soon — no, indecently soon. And — and I’m going to be one of those girls, the ones who’ve got to pretend to be very surprised by their premature delivery.”

She barks out a laugh and immediately smothers it, because she hadn’t meant to sound so hysterical.

A baby, though!

Her skin’s hardening up because she’s growing a — a —

Héctor’s still being tentative. “That’s … why we wanted you to have options. For yourself, and your child.”

My child?” she flashes, indignant, and rounds on him. “It’s yours, too! I didn’t do this all on my own, for heaven’s sake, you spineless — ”

He scrambles to his feet, turns his ankle in their coats and nearly topples, but rights himself with a little hop.

“Mine, and yours,” he says to her, catching her and gathering her close. “Mine and yours, Imelda, hey, hey, it’s okay.”

“It’s not okay!”

“It’s okay, look at me, look at me,” his voice goes liquid, musical, and he leans in, pressing their foreheads together so she’s got nowhere else to look but at him, his eyes turned cyclopsian between hers. His smile’s all teeth — she still hasn’t told him it’s not as winsome as he thinks. “It’s ours. Mi amor, Imelda. Ours. Imelda, will it have dimples, do you think? Ernesto, do you think it will have dimples?”

“Don’t look at me,” Ernesto says dryly, watching them from the bench, his legs crossed. “I’m not involved.”

“I want it to have dimples,” Héctor says, adamant.

Don’t — !”

Imelda can’t think that far ahead, she can’t. She doesn’t want to. She’s having enough trouble processing what’s here, what’s now.

Except —

Except she’s never wasted time on anything, not when she truly wanted it, not when it was hers to have, when it wasn’t scraps handed down to her from a dozen other people.

She grabs Héctor by his ears.

“Héctor,” she says to him seriously. “Héctor Rivera, will you marry me.”

She’s got him bent towards her, a little too far to be comfortable, and he’s got too much arm, too much leg, too much rib, all of him disproportionate no matter how they tailor Ernesto’s cast-offs to hide it, and it’s ridiculous, he’s ridiculous, and —

— and Imelda forgets all of that at the look on his face.

“I would marry you tomorrow, I’d go wherever you want, and I will never take it back,” he promises her, and the voice he’s using is the one where he doesn’t even think of dressing it up.

No fibs, no embellishments, no wheedling or persuasion — just Héctor, and honesty.

“Okay,” she says, brilliantly.

He smiles, and pulls her up against him, and kisses her with that smile, with God and Ernesto as his witnesses.

 

*

 

Ernesto comes with him, because Ernesto at twenty-one can pass for a man much older if he wears his clothes right and carries his shoulders a certain way. He lends Héctor more gravitas than Héctor would have had on his own.

They call on Imelda’s uncle to negotiate — well, to negotiate a wedding pact, but to Imelda it feels more like a bargain hunt. She might as well be one of the horses; the business of securing a bride and the business of securing a horse contain a lot of the same language. She’s left feeling sick to her stomach.

As she feared, as soon as it occurs to him that someone might actually find value in Imelda, her uncle tightens his grip.

“The only daughter of my youngest brother?” he stalls, like he isn’t darting her piggish little looks out of the corner of his eye, wondering if he’s miscalculated her worth — a look Imelda would recognize blindfolded. He never imagined she would be anyone’s first choice. How he can correct the oversight and still come out with a profit? “I cannot go to the ofrenda and tell him I let his daughter have anything but the very best, and that includes husbands, músicolitos.”

Don Consequela puts one arm around her shoulders and drags her up against his side, and it’s like beating leather that’s been in the sunshine for hours: there’s a puff of sour smell that Imelda doesn’t hold her breath in time to avoid.

Her reaction is as visceral as it is sudden.

Eighteen years of her life rise up at once and take her throat in a stranglehold, and Imelda hates her uncle so much she cannot stand it.

She doesn’t know what her face does, she isn’t making a single attempt to hide it, but whatever it is, Héctor and Ernesto’s expressions change like someone’s flipped a coin.

Once, when Imelda was small, all the children in San Juan Albán made paper cuitlaxochitl to decorate the altar with on Christmas Eve. She’d touched the five-pointed red leaves, the cluster of paper-ball berries in its center, and listened to the priest tell the story of Pepita, who’d been too poor to offer a proper tribute at baby Jesus’s manger and offered him the weeds she’d seen and liked, only to find the next day that they’d bloomed into pointsettas. Imelda looked at the flower, then at the altar, and decided Jesus probably had enough, and wouldn’t begrudge letting her keep this one pretty thing, and stole it.

Her aunt found it, of course, crushed under her pillow a month or two later, and whirled on her with a shout to smack her —

And Óscar and Felipe stepped in.

She doesn’t recall the specifics of what they said, only that she could count on one hand the occasions in which her brothers actually protected her, and this was one of them. Usually they were the ones getting her into trouble, but this time they made up a story on the spot to get her out of it, all because she wanted something nice for herself for once and they recognized that in her.

The same thing happens here.

She sees them turn something on: they stop being Héctor and Ernesto, and start being Héctor-and-Ernesto, the double-act, who charmed nuns and shopkeepers and convinced Papá Figaro of all people to accept two music students for the price of one.

“Now, don, look here,” Ernesto starts, speaking slowly.

Imelda feels the moment it solidifies into place inside of her, like crust on bread.

She wants to belong to them, she wants them to belong to her, more than she ever wants to belong to Casa Consequela.

Taking a deep breath, she folds them up with her eyes, tucks them close to her heart, and turns under her uncle’s arm to join them, becoming the third part of their act. She steals them, to keep them for herself.

 

*

 

She gets her wedding date.

One week after Christmas, right before the Epiphany.

Imelda hopes that’ll be soon enough. Until the … until it quickens, and gives them an idea of how big it’s gotten, she won’t know when it’s due.

“When did your monthlies stop?” asks the newest wife of her male cousin, the one Imelda sang for at her wedding.

“They haven’t,” Imelda says shortly. “But they’re … spotty, off and on, and I couldn’t tell you when I first noticed the change.”

This earns her a frown, and a, “I don’t like the sound of that.”

Imelda likes having her around, up until she doesn’t. She’s a sharp-eyed woman, clever and engaging and exactly the kind of asset her uncle would want to sequester for the household, and Imelda, who barrels into everything like a bull because she has to, isn’t sure what to do with her.

In short order, though, she’s overtaken by Imelda’s mother, her aunts, all her primas. There’s no keeping a secret from any of them; they turned up as soon as it got out that Imelda was in trouble.

They spend a stupid amount of time talking around each other. As soon as she parses through the euphemisms and realizes what they’re asking her, she brushes them off. “Oh, that,” she says with impatience. “Yes, of course I did that.”

And then looks around at their shocked faces.

“Why?” says her Tía María Rosa, horrified.

“Because I didn’t know!” Imelda retorts. “There didn’t seem to be any good reason not to. It was fun, it didn’t cost any money, we liked it, I had no idea it was … it was going to … that you were going to blame me.”

It’s a struggle to keep her voice from wavering when all her female relatives are standing around her like gladiators in judgment.

Well, mostly. Ines just looks confused.

“What’s supposed to be fun?” she whispers.

Her other primas shout over her.

“We warned you,” they wail at her. “Discharge milky white, don’t go out at night!”

I did that, Imelda wants to complain, because no one told her the connection between the two, and she’d never made a habit of leaving the compound after dark anyway, but she definitely didn’t if it was the time of month her underthings were stained white instead of red. She obeyed that rule, and in the afternoon she put her legs around Héctor’s waist without a second thought.

Another prima tosses her braid and huffs.

“What did you think we were talking about when we warned you, again and again, about being alone with men?”

“That he would kill me,” Imelda says promptly. “Like Deremé’s mother. That he would slam his fist into my face, Tía, and I would have to tell everyone I hit myself doing the washing.” She makes eye contact with her uncle’s wife, the head of household. She holds it.

To her shock, it is Señora Consequela who looks away first.

“I thought you were worried about my life. I didn’t think my — my — modesty deserved the same level of protection. Or more, apparently, since I’ve never had this much of your attention at once.”

One or two of the women have the decency to look ashamed, and in the back, the new wife looks at her with a sudden sharp-eyed wily look.

But then her mother stands. She swells, incarnadine with rage.

For the first time, guilt begins to curdle in Imelda’s stomach. From the moment she was thrust upon Don Consequela’s mercy, young and freshly widowed, her mother had to work twice as hard, be twice as unobtrusive, just so that her children had a chance of being treated roughly as equal as their pure-bred Consequela cousins. She just had to see Óscar, Felipe, and Imelda through to adulthood — the twins with their opportunities, Imelda with her virginity intact. And with one slip, Imelda threw all of that out the window.

No wonder Doña Flores looks ready to hit her with a shoe.

“You, perhaps,” she starts, in a deadly voice. “But he should have known better.”

“How!” Imelda fires back, exasperated. “He has no parents, no godparents, nothing but nuns and Papá Figaro, when was he supposed to get this education that none of you bothered to give me?”

“And this — this is why we keep our girls chaperoned,” Tía María Rosa remarks to no one in particular. “How come even behind guarded walls we can’t keep them in check.”

“It’s not my fault!” Imelda snaps, and knows at once from the outbreak of disapproving murmuring that no one believes that.

The new wife has to raise her voice to be heard above it all.

“I don’t like that she’s still bleeding,” she tries, but nobody pays her any mind.

This sets the tone for the next several days, until a cousin’s husband catches the reins tossed to him and as he enters into the paddock asks jokingly, “Say, why are you all treating niñita Imelda like she is the dog that tore up your shoes?” and her primas close rank around her.

She might be the embarrassing example they hold up to make themselves look pristine in comparison, but she is their embarrassment. No one else’s!

 

*

 

“I want to talk to your engineer.”

Her brothers lift their heads, then exchange a look.

“He’s not our engineer —” Óscar starts to say, but Imelda cuts him off with a rude noise, crossing the room and checking the bed for any pointy tools or toys before flopping down on top of it.

“You’ve attended almost every lecture he’s given for years, including that weird one about the little machines in our bodies — gérmenes? Bactolio?”

“Bacteria,” Felipe corrects.

“Where engineering meets biological science,” Óscar interjects, primly.

“Yes, that’s what I said. At this point he probably owes you his firstborn child.”

Sitting cross-legged on the carpet, their pants rolled to their knees because the kitchen below makes this room a sweltering pit, always, her brothers exchange another look. They’ve managed to sell almost all of their mobiles, and have moved on to artesanía wind-up toys. The shelves around their room are crowded with projects in progress; dancers in regional dress, frogs and horses, and alebrije, too. The one in Óscar’s hand is a toad with big bull’s horns and a purple speckled belly, its back half-coated in yellow paint. Felipe holds out a magnifying glass so Óscar can get the spots just right.

He sets it down. “What do you need him for?”

“He’s been wanting to engineer instruments for the maestro, hasn’t he?” Imelda affects a shrug. “Do you think I could commission him?”

With what money, she expects them to ask, but the twins are quicker on the uptake than that: their eyebrows fly up.

“You’re going to use your bride money —“

“— to commission an instrument from the engineer?”

They look at her with identical, bug-eyed looks of disbelief, their mouths as flat as the alebrije toad’s.

“Is that wise?” they ask.

Swinging herself upright, she scoots to the end of the bed and opens her mouth to speak, but the thing inside of her makes itself known suddenly. Imelda closes her eyes, rests her hand on her stomach, waits for the nausea to pass.

(She doesn’t like to think about it. This is the body she has to occupy. If a baby takes it over from the inside out, then where will she go?)

“Listen,” she says, when she feels she can speak without her lunch lurching. “That money is mine, it’s the only value I have to my name. But there’s no way our uncle with let me take any currency into my marriage, not when he can find a way to keep it in his own pocket.”

This, Óscar and Felipe accept without question.

The fog comes, the fog goes, but their uncle will always be the slimiest person you’ll meet in a day.

“So I need to turn it into something. Something with just as much value. Tío Consequela has no use for a musical instrument, but if Héctor and I had a good one, we could make a living off of it, independently of our family. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

Neither Héctor nor Ernesto own the instruments they bring to play in the plaza — it’s part of why they got in so much trouble when they ran away last year. They’re stuck until they can buy something.

But if Héctor owned one, debt-free …

It would change everything.

Her brothers must see some of this on her face, because they straighten up and look at each other for a long time.

The conversation they have is wordless, conducted almost entirely with their eyebrows, shoulders, hands. Imelda waits — she grew up around this. Or, more accurately, outside of it. It’s probably why Héctor and Ernesto’s closeness doesn’t bother her the way it does the other musicians, sometimes, because she’s already seen it.

They round on her.

“If you bring us a design, Imelda,” says her brother Felipe.

“We’ll take it to the engineer,” says her brother Óscar.

 

*

 

It’ll have to be a guitar, because it’s the most versatile to play, and it’s the instrument Héctor knows best.

“Are you certain?” the twins ask her, just to be safe. “You don’t want to keep it, for … for baby things?”

“If we have our own way to earn money, we can buy our own baby things,” Imelda answers with more confidence than she feels. And, quieter, “yes, I’m sure. Even if I didn’t have my own reasons, I would still want to do this.”

“Why?”

And really, there’s only one answer to that.

“Because I love him,” Imelda says.

She looks at her brothers, who look back. She scrunches her nose up. It’s the truth: she doesn’t know what else to say.

A beat, and then Óscar and Felipe peel their lips off their teeth.

“Gross,” they say.

“I know!” Imelda wails in agreement, and they all start laughing. “I don’t know where it came from!”

“We always thought people were just making it up. That everyone was just pretending to have those feelings, and everyone was indulging them by believing it.”

“It’s either that or go crazy.”

“It’s nice to see it proved true, right in front of us. Embarrassing, but nice.”

“Thanks,” says Imelda from where she’s got her head buried in her hands, but she can hear them smiling.

“We’ll build the guitar, Imelda.”

“The engineer will guide us, but we’ll do the construction. We want you to carry that with you.”

“You’re still gross, though.”

“Whatever,” says Imelda.

So she takes a leaf from their book and goes to the music school after she’s done in the stables, figuring they’d appreciate it if she took notes for them.

She expects to be stopped, interrogated, but to her surprise, she walks all the way through the compound and nobody questions her. She sits in the instrument room with her braid pulled forward over her shoulder, in a loose blouse tugged out as much as she dares to hide the subtle way she’s been rounding out, and draws different body shapes while the marimba players gossip in the corner.

It’s like her presence among them is undisputed. She scrunches her toes in her boots, delighted by that thought.

Ernesto passes through with three of the wind instruments, and does a double-take when he spots her. But he recovers and tips her a nod, turning to follow the others back out.

Impulsively, she calls out to stop him.

He turns. “Yes?”

He checks behind him, then looks back to her, eyebrows ticked up in surprise. Almost all their interactions to date have been done through Héctor — like papel picado, her friendship with Ernesto is so flimsy it falls apart in the rain. They’ve never worked at it.

“Come here and look at this,” she says. “Tell me what you think it needs.”

He approaches, and she turns the twins’ workbook towards him. He looks down at it, expression inscrutable.

“It’s a commission,” she blurts, then bites her tongue.

“This is …” he starts, lifting the page and then letting it slip down the side of his finger. “For Héctor, yes? You’re commissioning an instrument for Héctor.”

“Yes,” says Imelda.

“A guitar. This is not … an inexpensive thing.”

“No.”

“This is going to cost you more than you can justify spending.”

“Yes.”

Imelda can hear the bite of impatience in her voice. She doesn’t need Ernesto to tell her what she’s already told herself. She needs to focus on this project; it’s more real to her than her impending motherhood. She needs him to tell her something useful.

He lifts his eyes and boggles at her.

“You’re crazy about him,” he whispers, like he’d never considered it a possibility. It’s a revelation — no, it’s an accusation.

And that’s —

That is the most hypocritical thing anyone has ever said to her.

Imelda flares up, a matchstick struck.

I’m crazy?” she hisses, struggling to keep her voice down, acutely aware they’re not alone in the room. “If I’m crazy, then you — you should be certified!”

His eyebrows spring up acrobatically.

Me?”

Imelda huffs. “Yes, you! I think I like him a reasonable amount, compared to you!”

“I’ve never done anything like this!” Ernesto gestures at the workbook.

“He gives you everything,” she snaps, fast as a backhanded slap. “He stands back and lets you have everything. He deserves to have nice things, too. I wanted him to have that, for once — to be put first.”

His mouth works, forming shapes and letting them dissolve.

This hadn’t occurred to him either, apparently. All these years, she’s willing to bet, and he’s never stopped to notice. Of course not.

“He has nice things,” he manages, feebly.

“Oh? What have you given him recently?”

“Don’t be stupid,” says Ernesto de la Cruz. “I gave him you.”

Imelda barks an ugly laugh, caught off guard by the audacity of it, the idea that she could be given, and she’s still laughing when Ernesto cuts her a look, low across the throat.

He says, “If I wanted you gone, you’d be gone.”

And slowly, her laughter dies off.

“Why aren’t I?”

He tilts his head, blinks, and the expression clears. “He’s my family. I want him to be happy, we’re practically brothers.”

A smile wrenches Imelda’s mouth to one side.

She says, “That’s not the word for it.”

What follows next is the most charged moment of her life. Imelda’s seen injured travelers lifted by human chain up steep paths with no certain footholds. She’s seen uncles bucked from the backs of stallions, seen the moment the horse decided whether or not to put a hoof through a weak human skull. None of it felt half as dangerous as this — this moment here.

Her heartbeat thunders in her throat.

They stare at each other, unblinking, reptilian. Snakes coiled in the dirt.

Yes, the look says. Yes, we’re on the same page. Yes, we’re talking about exactly what you think we’re talking about.

Now who will strike first? Imelda — or Ernesto? Either would be fatal, and maybe this is why they’ve hardly ever interacted without Héctor there. You don’t step on something that will kill you.

Ernesto’s throat moves. His lips purse, then part.

“Fortunately,” he says, smooth as anything. “I do not want you gone. Believe me — believe me when I tell you that there is no one who wants you in his life more than me. Now,” he glances down at the guitar on the page, and Imelda exhales, shuddering and slow. “What was your question?”

 

*

 

Later, when Imelda looks back, up to that point she and Ernesto had been merely tolerating each other. But they stop, after that. Some things you can’t go through without becoming friends, and loving another person so much you pass right through jealousy into unbelievably stupid is one of those things.

 

*

 

This lasts until December, because liturgical seasons don’t stop for war or love or money and the choir needs changing for Advent. Her cousins’ children start asking about Christmas, because Christmas means Las Posada, which means singing and, more importantly, treats. Imelda’s charged with keeping them occupied so they don’t bother the aunties in the kitchen. She herds them around, makes them fold paper poinsettias for the cathedral’s Guadalupe shrine.

Everyone else is angling to be sent to the seaside markets in Veracruz. It’s the only time of year the Consequelas willingly ride the train.

They’ll take it all the way to Puerto Mexico, where the ships come in from the Caribbean Islands, from New Orleans, and even sometimes from Africa, a place that to Imelda sounds like someone just made it up, like Timbuktu or Canada. She’s never see the sea, and neither have Óscar or Felipe.

When Mariano Consequela went in 1896, back when Puerto Mexico still had its Aztec name, Coatzacoalcos, he brought back lilies the size of his head to decorate the nave, and a church orphan with big box braids and a ward’s name, Flores, who’d dropped the Star of Bethlehem on him — they were going to get married, though they didn’t know it yet.

Thanks to the train, you can get there and back again in a day, although these days you’ve got the carrancistas to contend with. Don Consequela has supported Carranza his whole campaign, one wealthy man to another, and thinks it shouldn’t be any trouble if he sends his men to do it.

They leave after Mass that Sunday, and Imelda stands with the children to wave them off, to keep them distracted from the girls set up on blankets at the end of the platform, selling their tamales and their dime-sized gorditas to pilgrims on their way to pay respect to Guadalupe. If the chiquillos see the food, they’ll want some. She tugs their Sunday best into order, smoothing down their hair despite their protests, and it’s a peculiar pang inside her chest, the thought that she’ll have a child who will grow into these — probably these exact clothes, actually.

She has names ready, but —

“Don’t I get a say?” Héctor asks amusedly, when she tells him her decision later.

She thinks about lying, but honestly —

“— you have no taste and I’m not raising a child named after whatever composition piece you’re currently enamored with.”

He puts a hand to his chest, feigning wounded, but when she turns away, he mumbles, “… but Gloria is a fine name.”

Shouting and whistling from the paddock attracts their attention; a cousin’s wife is doing something fancy with an ornery colt, and since that’s something Imelda wants to see, she drags him over and elbows into place along the fence. Héctor makes like he’s going to take her hand, but Tía María Rosa, sitting on a nearby barrel with the sharpening tool and a pair of nibblers, gives him the evil eye.

Gone are the days when Imelda and Héctor can disappear and no one will miss them. They’re more closely chaperoned than ever, which Imelda thinks is ridiculous. The worst has already happened, hasn’t it?

This is your life now, she tells herself — in happy moments, when it is her-and-Héctor-and-Ernesto, that three-headed, single-minded thing, talking bigger than they can conceivably plan for — but in the darker ones, too, when the growth in her belly feels like a stone, growing moss and getting heavier, and Imelda has no choice but to roll downhill with it.

This is your life. This is what you chose.

 

*

 

And then, on the same morning a soldier comes into the room where Venustiano Carranza is swatting flies and informs him that Huerta has taken a turn for the worse, General, the prison prepares his deathbed, Carranza inspects the gory remainder on the end of his switch and replies, “good, may that Indigenous tyrant rot for all he put us through,” and across the country Imelda wakes to an awful pain in her lower back, worse even than what precedes her monthlies.

Careful of her sleeping cousins, she rolls out of bed, her nightgown doggedly sticking to her.

Muzzy, cotton-mouthed and weighty with sleep, she reaches behind her to pick it out of her crease as she stumbles for the washbasin. She’s not thinking of anything in particular, just that she hurts and it’s a common prank the primas play, switching the washbasin and the mosquito trap and she should check for lemons before she splashes her face, so it takes a moment to register the hand stretched out in front of her is red and sticky.

That’s gross. What —

Oh, great.

She grabs fistfuls of her gown, dragging it around. The back of it and the blanket she’d been lying on are dark with blood.

Her heart leaps to take her throat by a stranglehold, but her brain doesn’t know why. It hasn’t caught up yet. It’s just disgusted that she got caught off guard and now there’s a mess she’ll have to clean up. That’s a particularly bad one, though, especially when she’s been so irregular for months —

And then her heart, abruptly cut loose, plummets into her stomach.

She opens her mouth.

Her scream jolts the other girls awake, and the room only gets louder and more awful from there.

 

*

 

“It’ll be over soon, mija,” her mother promises her, from the other side of the door.

The only response Imelda can manage is a tiny moan. Her insides are cramped up so wrenchingly she cannot draw breath. She pants through her teeth, hands dug into the small of her back, trying to relieve the pressure.

Outside, someone asks a question, and her mother squawks, “No! Go find another another toilet!”

“But Tía … “ the voice whines.

“If it’s so urgent that your drawers are in danger, you shouldn’t have waited so long, chavo. This one’s occupied!”

The indignation in her mother’s voice, fierce and protective, makes Imelda weak in the knees with sudden gratitude. When she thinks she can, she gets off the pot and goes over to the door, thunking down against it. A moment later, she hears her mother sit down on the other side, knocking her head against the same spot Imelda’s is.

“It will come away soon,” she repeats, like it’s supposed to be a comfort. “And then it will be over.”

“There’s no chance …” Imelda tries. She sounds stupid, and young, even to her own ears.

“No. No, Imelda. It won’t live. I’m sorry.”

Imelda drops her head.

She wants her in here with her. She wants to be held. She wants someone to help her through this, but they put her in the bathroom and shut the door and called her mother to come guard her. To the rest of the household, it will seem like Imelda’s just having a particularly bad monthly — a fiction that must be preserved, for everyone’s sake.

Imelda knows this. It doesn’t change the fact she’s shut up in a dark, stinking room, alone and in pain.

And her body —

— her baby

“I love you,” says the voice on the other side of the door, like it knows. “Imeldita, cielito, my darling, my only daughter — I am so sorry.”

Imelda dashes her hands across her cheeks.

“Bet this is a relief for you, isn’t it?” she says, letting her tone turn vicious. “I won’t shame you after all, if it all goes away quietly enough.”

“That’s not fair …”

“Isn’t it? Isn’t it, Mamá?”

A pause.

“There’s so much I wanted to spare you from,” her mother says, with a creaking note, like her words are too heavy to comfortably carry. Imelda’s breath leaves her all at once, because yes, she knows. The Consequelas never let them forget it. “I’m sorry for my part in this, Imelda.”

Imelda sobs, but then the cramping starts again and she has to get up to return to the pot, so she can lose, and lose, and lose.

 

*

 

When it comes away, the … the remains are wrapped in flour cloth, and taken out to be buried.

“Wait,” Imelda drags herself up and digs her rosary out of her pocket, pooling it on top of the flour cloth so they can be buried together. It’s one of the few possessions she has that hadn’t belonged to someone else first. It’s an aching, terrible hope inside of her, that the Virgin Mother will have pity on it, or some other saint, for whatever it might be.

From those in the know, she gets horror and sympathy in equal measure (“I told you!” cries the cousin’s wife, the one who’d been worried about her bleeding,) and worse than all that — smugness from her uncle.

Once she’s been cleaned up to presentable standards, he comes in to see her, to tell her, charitably, that he’s taken care of it. The wedding. There’s no need for it now, though she must know it will make things difficult for her in the future, since she’s carelessly spent her bride money.

Still. Nice to have a second chance, right?

“God knew,” he tries to say. “This is —“

And Imelda snarls, “you know nothing,” in a voice so vicious and guttural that he actually takes a step back, naked shock showing on his face. Her mother’s there in a heartbeat, at her back — support that she was not anticipating.

“Mamá?” she says to her later, when at last her blanket’s been scrubbed clean. That’s every last trace that it ever was.

Doña Flores pauses. “Imelda?”

“What does this make me?” Her voice comes out as small and pulpy as the pit of a fruit. “I’d gotten used to the idea I was going to be a mother. Where does all of that — that feeling go? Am I still a mother? Can you be a mother with no child? What do I —“

— do with all of this love? Where can I put it down?

And her mother, Mariano Consequela’s Coatzacoalcos bride, pulls her in and kisses the top of her head.

She doesn’t answer, because there isn’t one.

 

*

 

All of this, somehow, is over before the day is done, so that when Héctor comes skidding into the compound later that afternoon, it’s without any inkling that anything’s changed. To cancel the wedding, her uncle would have informed Padre Luis, and possibly the florist — it wouldn’t have occurred to him to tell the groom.

Her cousins’ niños abandon their kickball game and dash up to him, letting him ruffle their hair good-naturedly. They’ve never cared that the adults are ostracizing him.

She watches from the door to the main house as they catch his arms and swing from them, loudly broadcasting the curiosities of their day. (“Where did they send him?” Héctor asks, all exaggerated surprise. “Spain? No! How is a president of Mexico supposed to be our president if he isn’t in Mexico? What do you mean, he’s not president! Tell me what happened!”)

He looks up, and sees her.

If she even thought about pretending anything, she doesn’t get the chance: his face changes immediately.

“Perdóneme, caballeros,” he says to the boys, extracting himself with difficulty.

He approaches her on the porch, swiping his hat from his head. She looks at the slime on his boots. She looks at his hands clutching the brim. She has trouble meeting his eyes.

Steam pours over the courtyard. On the other side of the wall, a train screams.

“Imelda?” he ventures.

She doesn’t know what she’s going to say — there’s been an accident is stupid, and don’t look so worried, you’re going to be relieved is even worse — and her mouth opens and makes the decision for her.

“I lost it,” she hears herself say, hollowly, distant, like it’s her that’s been exiled to Spain and left the rest to run without her. “The baby. It’s gone.”

And Héctor, to his everlasting credit, doesn’t say a word.

He steps up to her and pulls her into his arms. His hat shelters her back, and she shudders, and shudders again. She has no idea how long they stand there, holding each other. Her family doesn’t interrupt them. It’s the nicest thing they’ve ever done for her, in all their years.

 

*

 

Her brothers exchange a look.

“Imelda,” says Óscar.

“Little sister,” says Felipe.

“We know the circumstances have changed. We weren’t sure if you still wanted it.”

“But it’s finished. You should decide what you want done with it.”

“With what?” Imelda wants to know, except then the twins are reaching behind their bed, and pulling out an old guitar case.

Humbly, Felipe tells her, “It’s no Zacatlán clock.”

Modestly, Óscar adds, “But there’s nothing else in the world like it, I promise you.”

Her heart, which for days has hung motionless, suspended on a hook inside her chest the way you do with skinned meat before it goes bad, gives a startled, anticipatory leap. Is this the guitar? Her uncle would find a way to get bride money back, but he has no use for a guitar, especially this one.

They set the case down in front of her.

She flips the latches, opens the lid —

— breathes unsteadily, closes it, gets her breath back —

— and opens it again.

And she knows, from the instant she pulls her thumb across the strings and feels it resonate under her hand, that this is the best her brothers’ sound engineering could provide. That they did it, because she asked them to.

She turns, and embraces them. Hard.

Together, they lay their cheeks against her head.

“You’re welcome,” they say, as if she said anything at all.

When she gets a chance, she takes it to the school, where nobody bats an eyelash at a young woman carrying a guitar case. She finds Héctor with Ernesto out back, husking corn in a manner that suggests they’ve been given punishment for something, although neither of them seem to be acting punished, flicking corn tassels at each other and hooking their feet behind the other’s stools, trying to tip them off balance.

Ernesto flops a curtain of silky soft tassels in front of his eyes, then smooths them back in the exaggerated matter of a quinceañera taking care with her hairdo, looks up, spots Imelda — spots the guitar case — and the legs of his stool come down with a thunk.

“Imelda!” says Héctor, brightening. “Are you here to apprentice to the maestro, finally?”

“It’s my brothers who should apprentice, not me,” says Imelda.

“As … musicians?”

To his credit, he sounds only slightly dubious. Óscar and Felipe are not bad singers, and they need an apprenticeship — any apprenticeship — before their uncle traps them into horsecraft or soldiering.

“As instrument-makers,” Imelda stresses.

Realization clears the clouds from their faces.

“Here,” she blurts out. Gingerly, she sets the guitar down, resting it on top of the mound of corn husks. “This was supposed to be a wedding present, but now I guess it’s just a present. Feliz Navidad, or something.”

Héctor cuts a glance at Ernesto, whose expression is impenetrable. He ticks an eyebrow back.

Slowly, Héctor sets the case on its side, flips the latches, and opens the lid.

Later — forty, fifty years down the line, when asked what she’s most proud of, Imelda will have a decently-sized list of things ready at hand, and an attitude to match. But there are only three moments in her life where she can say definitively that she made a difference. Where she knew that she drastically altered the course of someone’s life for the better.

The first was Soledad, with the ring.

The second was Rosita, with Paula, and Imelda came into the kitchen one morning to find them mixing paints for the tiles they were going to glaze and inlay to back the countertops, their heads bent together, easy and laughing in the safe place Imelda made for them, and that thought was a bolt out of the blue. You cannot have discipline and fortitude sit at your kitchen table if love and acceptance are not there as well, and woe betide anyone who forgets that — herself included.

But the third …

The third was this, now, with Héctor Rivera’s eyes going wider, and wider — the realization that this was his, that a man who possessed an instrument like this would never be poor, or helpless, or dependent.

The things Imelda wanted for herself, more than anything — she couldn’t imagine any better gift to give someone else.

“Oh,” Héctor says, wrecked. “Oh, Imelda.”

He lifts the guitar out.

Imelda’s main vision had been the color; the same silver-white color of the cloud forest when it comes to earth, with a mosaic pattern hemming it in along the edges.

The skull had been Ernesto’s suggestion.

(“Día de los Muertos is his favorite holiday. More than Christmas, more than Juárez’s birthday — I don’t get it, who doesn’t love fireworks? No, I don’t know — his whole family’s dead, right? It’s probably nice to think that there’s a holiday where they’ll visit him willingly. What? No, not really — I don’t know mine. You can’t invite them back if you don’t know who they are.”)

Eventually, Héctor will add his own touch, coloring one of the teeth in gold. The first time they see it, Imelda and Ernesto exchange a look, each expecting the other to understand the significance — and by that point, for there to be something about Héctor they didn’t know was significant by itself.

Ernesto smiles and nods when Héctor, stunned and incredulous and overjoyed, looks to him, but then next Imelda glances in his direction, he’s evaporated. She cranes her neck, but the husked corn is gone and there isn’t anyone else to be seen.

“Does it have a name?” Héctor asks, distracting her. “An instrument this fine needs a name, like ships do. Or swords.”

Imelda takes the vacated stool.

“I hadn’t thought about it,” she says. “But it’s yours. What do you want to name it?”

He considers it. The guitar’s cradled in his lap, and he rocks, unconsciously, hands drifting just to hear the sounds they make knocking up against it, the smooth finish, the frets and strings.

For a long time, he stays quiet, and Imelda watches the bent shape of his neck and tries not to think of anything at all.

He says, “Imelda, what were you going to name it? If it had lived?” and then has to move it in a hurry, because his lap will not fit guitar and Imelda both.

He sets it to the side, gently, and returns Imelda’s embrace.

It’s one thing, she thinks, as they grip each other tight — it’s one thing to know that she loves him and wants to give him this. It’s another thing entirely to know, to know without question, that he loves her, too. That he wants to give her this, too.

When she can manage it, she turns her head, pressing her mouth against his ear. She tells him, and he rests their faces alongside each other.

“Then that’s its name,” he promises.

 

*

 

Christmas comes and goes. The first week of January, the children put water and feed outside the gate so the horses carrying Los Reyes Magos have something to eat, too, in the hopes that the three kings will be generous with their gifts. Imelda’s too old for her three gifts by now, but her brothers make a little something for every child in the house. All day, miniature paper frogs keep leaping out of nowhere to startle people, and this time, when Héctor asks, she goes completely still and stares at him.

It goes on for so long that, anxiously, he leans in like he’s checking to make sure she’s blinking.

Finally, when the squeezed, bound-up feeling in her chest eases enough for her to talk, she snaps, “Is the sky red?”

“Er,” says Héctor.

“Did the sky turn red?” Imelda persists. “Is that it?”

“I —“

His mouth works fishily, and then, because he’s ridiculous, he actually checks. She thinks he might be so nervous that any answer that wasn’t a “yes” or a “no” is having trouble processing in that brain of his.

“No?” he sounds like he’s guessing. “No, it’s blue.”

She fixes him with a look.

“And as long as the sky remains blue, Héctor Rivera,” she tells him, “There is no one else I would rather marry. I’m going to marry you. That hasn’t changed.”

“Oh,” he says in a small voice.

She gets up and briskly brushes the wrinkles out of her skirt.

“Can’t believe you even had to ask,” she mutters, and leaves him smiling stupidly after her.

Later, though, he stops her mid-stride and puts his hand on her arm. When she glances up, his face is twisted up into a rictus of horror. Mutely, he points.

For a beat, she doesn’t know what he wants her to look at — not the hairless dog licking its private parts in a self-important way, surely, not the birds preening on the wall, but — oh! The sky! Which is …

Which at sunset is the color fruit gets when you peel it; reds and pinks and oranges so thick it’s as if you can taste the juices of them just by looking.

It’s spectacular, of course, and made all the more precious by the fact their sunsets are usually obscured by fog, but …

Not blue.

“Ah,” she says. Then, “Ah, well. That was fun while it lasted. Adios.”

She starts to pull away.

With a strangled noise, like something small that’s just had its tail trod on (the noise he still makes, sometimes, when she kisses him,) his grip tightens and he pulls her insistently into his side. He wraps an arm around her, pressing his mouth against her temple. Imelda looks around, but there’s no one watching — just that silly dog, and the birds, and the low-hanging fruit sky. She lets herself sink against him.

“You drive me crazy,” Héctor murmurs into her hair. “I’m going to go crazy.”

“Are you really?” she says back, low.

“A little,” he amends. “‘I’ll only marry you so long as the sky is blue,’ honestly.”

Imelda tolerates a few more kisses, laughing through them.

“You’re going to keep me guessing for the rest of our lives. Of course I’m going a little crazy.” His voice drops, and she thinks this might be one of those times he’s telling her something else entirely. “Un poco loco.”

 

*

 

“Which is nice,” says Ernesto, “and congratulations to you both, but it doesn’t solve any of our problems.”

Ach,” says Héctor, in a very Imelda-ish way. “Don’t be a donkey.”

Ernesto looks at him. Carefully, and with great deliberation, he scrapes a handful of moss off the rock he’s sitting on, and throws it at Héctor’s face.

“Nice,” Héctor says, and brushes it off his eyelashes.

Between them, Imelda twirls a marigold bloom between her fingers, the petals turning kaleidoscopic as she twists them one way, then the other. She holds it up. “I have an idea.”

They look at her.

Slowly, she pulls her eyes up, and starts to smile. “How good are you at stealing things?”

“Decent,” says Ernesto promptly.

Héctor opens his mouth, shuts it, and stares at him.

“… if the moment’s right,” he concedes.

Another beat, and Héctor makes a visible decision not to touch that and turns back to her.

“Well, don’t look at me,” he says, “I needed you to rescue me last time. Why, what are we stealing?”

Imelda sets the flower down, and answers, “My brothers.”

 

*

 

“Yes, okay,” says Óscar.

“We’re in,” says Felipe.

“That was easy,” says Imelda. And then, “First, you need to win your horses from the Consequela uncles.”

The twins blink, one after the other, tick then tock.

“On second thought —“

“— thank you, but —“

They slap their hands to their knees and start to rise from their chairs, and Imelda says, “ah, ah, ah!” and bars them with her arm. “Just hear me out.”

“You think we’re going to escape on horseback?” says Felipe dubiously.

“It would be dramatic, I like your flare,” Óscar adds diplomatically. “But we don’t have nearly the dashing mustaches for it.”

“You’re not taking the horses,” she answers. “We’re taking the horses. You are going to take the train.”

And she sees it, like light cresting, as realization dawns across their faces.

 

*

 

The rite of passage for any Consequela boy (and girl, to a lesser extent,) is to break in a new horse for the family, there in the paddock while the uncles sit on the fenceposts and watch, beating their hats on their knees and shouting advice. All horses bear the Consequela brand as soon as they’re purchased, but it’s an unspoken rule that the first horse you break in is yours, and that’s how they’re addressed. “Sister Evalina is renting which horse?” “Emilio’s, primo!”

Imelda’s horse is a pinto mare they bought from Teodoro’s, the Zapotec trainer down in Cañada (who found a quick way to make bank in the early years of the war, so long as he sold his horseflesh to the right side,) and Imelda got her to take saddle and reins purely because one of the lesser uncles told her she couldn’t do it.

The pinto’s known in the stables for responding to Imelda’s whistles and then conveniently forgetting every command she ever learned should anyone else try it. She and Imelda get along famously.

But Óscar and Felipe — their failure to live up to this tradition is one of the many black marks they have against them.

“It doesn’t have to be anything fancy,” Imelda assures them. “In fact, it’s probably better that you don’t.”

“They’ve got such big teeth,” Felipe says despairingly.

“You want us to go near them — on purpose?” Óscar whines.

“After everything we’ve done so we don’t —“

“— have to at all?”

“Are you engineers or aren’t you?” she fires back. “How do they work? God put horses together, and God’s the smartest engineer of them all — figure it out.”

Their uncle’s next bargain includes one grey stallion, two geldings with bad table manners, and two brown mares, bought for cheap from a battlefield scalper who barely even stopped to cut the army lapels off of them before turning around and selling them.

It’s the mares Imelda zeroes in on. They’re pack horses, those two.

“Them,” she says to her brothers, and they breathe out in relief.

“Oh, good.”

“We were worried you’d tell us to take the stallion.”

“No. Leave him for whatever idiot wants to get himself brained next. The mares.”

They glance at each other.

Their expressions firm up, and they nod.

 

*

 

Imelda dangles her legs out the back of the gazebo, the twins’ workbook open on her lap. She has a map painstakingly spread out on top of it, tracing the lines onto the page, and for once, her worries feel manageable, her grief a half-step behind her. Her monthly’s about to start, but she can handle that, and there’s a hole forming at the toe of her boot where the thread’s coming undone; she can feel the damp coming through.

No one’s set up to play yet, and they might not: the cloud looks like it’s going to come down early.

A scrape of gravel brings her head up just as Héctor hops up to join her, making an exaggerated show of checking their surroundings before leaning in to steal a kiss. Imelda catches his face and kisses him back, once, twice, until the book starts to slip from her lap.

“How’s it coming?” he asks, while they’re still laughing.

“South first,” she tugs the map up, and points. “Then west, see, until it takes us back around again — unless we think we’ve got a chance of cutting through into Veracruz. It’s still Carranza’s stronghold, after all.”

But he’s shaking his head. “No, you’re right, it’s not worth the risk.”

“That’s what I thought.”

She goes back to tracing, and after a moment, he starts swinging his legs in tandem with hers. She smiles, cuts him a sidelong look — and then frowns curiously. He’s got something on his neck, like all his freckles merged together, and she reaches out to pin his collar down with the end of her pencil —

Ah. No, not freckles.

He lifts his eyebrows at her stifled noise. “What?”

But she smiles and shakes her head, “no, nothing,” and watches out of the corner of her eye as he investigates under his collar, then grimaces and tugs it up.

“Is it weird?” she asks.

“Is what weird?” he says, too quickly.

She suppresses another smile. “Down in the valleys. Or on the coast. I’ve never left the cloud forest — I think it must be weird, to be where it is not.”

“It’s … different,” he allows, after giving it thought. “I don’t know how to describe it. Like a steady soprano, maybe?”

Imelda blinks.

He pinwheels a hand at her. “I don’t know!” he exclaims. “How do you describe sunny days? Blue skies? A not-cloud? It’s just — like when there’s a really pure note that’s just … sustained. You’ll know it when you see it, I think you’ll like it.”

She does grin then. “I’m sure I will,” and closes the workbook. “But now I need to go.”

She tucks the workbook under her arm and gathers her skirts up, preparing to hop down, except he drags in a deep breath and says, “Imelda,” and she stops, alert to the change in his voice.

“Yes?”

“There’s something I need to tell you. About me.”

She ticks an eyebrow at him. “I already know about the boiling water.”

“What? No, not that. Well, yes, that, but that’s not what I’m talking about.” He slides to the ground, extending a hand to help her down. She lets him. Together, they skirt around the edge of the plaza, and she watches out of the corner of her eye as he knots the tails of his shirt around his fingers, tighter and tighter, to the point where she grows concerned for the integrity of the fabric.

Finally, he starts talking.

“This … is hard. Hard to take, too. I didn’t mean for it to become a secret, and I don’t want to marry you without you knowing — it’s too important for you not to know, you’re too important for you not to know, and I’ve been reliably informed that the longer I wait to tell you, the more it’s going to seem like a secret, and I don’t want to be a person with secrets, so here I am. Telling you. Going to tell you.”

All of this comes out very fast.

Imelda frowns, and then her eyebrows spring apart, shocked.

She grabs him by the arm and drops her voice. “Wait, are you trying to tell me how Ernesto’s got you in his bed the way you’ve got me in yours?”

Héctor’s whole body jerks.

“Figuratively,” Imelda adds, because a bed is one place she hasn’t had Héctor, funnily enough.

Several interesting things happen to him at once: his face floods, then drains of color almost simultaneously. His mouth works fishily, and then he sits down, fast, right there on the ground, slipping out of her grasp.

“You … you knew?” His voice is worn, threadbare. “How did you … ”

There’s nothing for it at that point, so Imelda sweeps her skirts to the side and sits down next to him.

“Well, I didn’t leave that mark on your neck,” she points out.

As she knew it would, his hand flies up to cover it, and he starts stammering.

“It doesn’t necessary follow — that doesn’t — I could have another girlfriend!”

Her eyebrows lift.

“And …” he follows the thought through to conclusion. “If I had another girlfriend, your watchdog primas would already have murdered me in my sleep.”

“Hung, drawn, and quartered,” she cheerfully confirms. “And then made it my fault somehow.”

“But I don’t … understand.”

“Héctor,” she tries not to let her amusement show, “when I met you, you were trying to disguise yourself as a postulant to break into the convent and steal back his love letters so he wouldn’t be embarrassed.”

He opens his mouth. Closes it again.

“But we — weren’t, then,” he says blankly.

“That came later?” she guesses, and suddenly sits upright with a snap of her fingers. “That time you ran away! I knew something was different when you came back!”

But she didn’t have the context for it then, how being in love rearranges everything inside of you, so nothing’s where you remember putting it and you’ve got to stumble around until you’ve found it all again, and everyone around you clucks their tongue and says, infatuated. She laughs, pleased with herself.

That’s why the army never got you, but you never got a show, either! You were in bed the whole time — the same way we were in the stables!”

“We were not!” Héctor fires back, and then reconsiders.

He sobers, and Imelda’s mirth, left alone, dwindles down too.

“You never said anything,” he whispers, and they both abruptly become interested in studying the stones at their feet, the place where the cobble gives way to a beaten dirt path, where the moss is trying to claim it all.

“Why would I?” she says back, out of the corner of her mouth. “That’s a grave thing to accuse someone of, if I didn’t have proof.”

Besides, it’s not typically the first conclusion people come to. Imelda wouldn’t have known men could lie with men the way they could lie with women — but then again, until this year, she hadn’t known men could lie with women at all, or what would happen when they did, so it hadn’t been much more of a shock to learn the other way could be true, too. It’s yet another one of those things that no one talks about — like Imelda’s almost-baby, and now that she’s been the secret that comes with secret-keeping, a sense of fellow feeling makes her sensitive to others.

“I saw you once,” she blurts, and that hadn’t been anything at all: putting their instruments away after a session, Imelda coming around the back of the gazebo to return their sheet music to them. Héctor concentrated on the clasp to his case, tongue tucked in the corner of his mouth for safekeeping, and Ernesto cast a quick look around, overlooked Imelda entirely, then slid his hand around Héctor’s waist.

Imelda had froze, watched that hand splay across Héctor’s stomach, pulling him back so Ernesto could kiss the back of his neck — just once, without urgency, just affection, and calm, and adoration, and a dozen other things Imelda recognized down to the root of her heart.

When it came to Héctor, she and Ernesto were often on the same page.

Even then, she might have been willing to dismiss it — they were affectionate, so what, lots of schoolboys were — if not for how Héctor relaxed into it, tipping his head back. His face hadn’t hidden anything at all.

And Imelda’s not going to lie. It hurt, a little, that some of the things she loved most about Héctor, like the feeling of his head on her chest, his hair against the underside of her chin as she clutched him close and he turned his mouth against her collarbone, she got secondhand from Ernesto de la Cruz of all people, but she’s the youngest of a hoard of cousins. Almost everything she owns is secondhand, and most of it is perfectly serviceable.

Possession isn’t everything.

“I.” Héctor’s throat bobs. “Yes. I — Ernesto and I, we’re. When things aren’t going well, and — sometimes when they’re going very well indeed, but!” At the look on her face, he gestures, fast. “That’s why I’m bringing it up. If you want me to stop, now is when I can wind it down.”

“If he is the kind of man you are scared to say ‘no’ to …” Imelda starts, frowning.

Héctor gestures. “It’s not that! He’s just more — difficult when he’s disappointed, so I try not to drop it on him. I’ll stop the — the — “

And there they are, running right up against the absence in their vocabulary.

“— barnyard antics?” Imelda suggests. It’d been one of her aunt’s euphemisms.

He blinks. “— sure. Them. I’ll stop them, I would just like to work up to it, is all. He would blame you, if I did it differently, and then he’d blame himself, and I don’t want any of that.”

A noise nearby shuts them both up, and they watch as the slop boy from the inn slows to a stroll, loitering around and kicking at things, clearly trying to kill time before the cloud comes down and he’s got to return to work. Spotting them sitting there in the middle of the path, his face goes keenly sharp, but quickly flips into disappointment: it’s just the musicians, and they’re engaged. That’s not interesting.

While they wait, Imelda considers it.

Ernesto had told her that he wanted her and Héctor to get married — but she has a suspicion that it’s part of some internal story Ernesto’s already decided on. He’s always liked the story something makes better than the reality.

And to think, she could flex this power. She could say, yes, stop seeing him, you will be my husband and no other.

Her, the horsemaster’s youngest, most-throwaway niece, who never gets anything. She could have that.

But —

But any plan of Héctor’s or Imelda’s always included Ernesto. From the very beginning, to the point where Héctor would rather Ernesto marry her if he couldn’t, so they wouldn’t lose her. How sure he’d been that it would work. She thinks of how close to spitting she and Ernesto got, confronted with the idea that the other might love Héctor more, how when it eased through they were fast friends, because you can’t not be.

It’ll be the three of them. It has to be.

It won’t work otherwise.

Imelda waits until she knows she’s got the words lined up. “If you could marry him instead of me, you’d’ve done so already.”

Héctor startles, and opens his mouth, but she silences him with a look.

“So don’t make the mistake of thinking I am the only one who comes with rules just because I’m the one you will sign a contract with. Every relationship has its vows, witnessed or not.”

“That’s … true.”

“What I am saying — I am saying we are not incompatible,” she decides with a brisk nod. “Your vows to him and your vows to me need not be at cross purposes.”

Héctor stares. Imelda looks at him, quick, and away again.

“Imelda Consequela,” he says, in a tone of voice that comes out strangled, thick with it, the cloud come down to earth and everything turned to soup except for this, here, in front of you, the only real thing. “I do not think I have ever met anyone like you.”

Imelda scoffs, and says tartly, “I should hope not.”

 

*

 

They are married in the spring — early, so as not to compete with the wedding of the mayor’s daughter to the engineer from Zacatlán, the one who wanted the mayor to hire him to build dams on Sierra Juárez, who wanted Papá Figaro to hire him to make crazy instruments. Instead, he wound up agreeing to expand the train depot. It’s an ambitious wedding for an ambitious project, and the mayor’s daughter wants the poqui-ti-ti-ta Consequela done and out of the way so that there are no distractions from her own preparations.

Her mother folds her arms.

“That is horseshit,” she announces.

“Mamá, it’s fine,” Imelda says placatingly, and drops her voice, “Óscar and Felipe won’t thank us if we jeopardize their chances now.”

Doña Flores had been working herself up like a good pair of bellows, but she releases it with a gusty sigh.

“You’re right,” she says, because she is the only other one in on the plan — and only partially, because she doesn’t know Imelda’s part. “but I’m not happy about it.”

Imelda smiles, because that’s been her mother’s refrain since the very beginning. She clucks her tongue and sucks at her teeth about every last detail — these flowers are wilted, and entirely the wrong color, and a handful of Papá Figaro’s teenage apprentices do not a wedding band make, honestly, do they want everyone to call Imelda a pauper? And that Héctor! (“That Héctor” had been just fine yesterday, when Tía Consequela made a disparaging remark about his income and her mother flew to his defense.)

Oh, and could he not do something about that patchy beard, just once, just for one day?

“I don’t like to see you settle for day-old leather, that’s all,” she huffs, and straightens Imelda’s neckline for the third time in as many hours.

Imelda looks at the ceiling, praying for patience.

I don’t have to tolerate this, she thinks.

But she’s going to anyway. She’s watched every last one of her aunts do this same thing with their daughters, and knows this is her mother’s only chance to have what they had, to be the conductor of all this attention for the first time in her life. Your daughters only get married once. After this, it’s back to the bottom of the family pecking order for both of them.

She puts her hands under her mother’s elbows, and looks at her.

Doña Flores levels her a steady look, and says what Imelda’s thinking. “It’s fortunate that you don’t look much like me. How different all this would be if you did.”

“Mamá,” Imelda says warningly.

She, Óscar, and Felipe take after their father in looks, and Imelda had been very young indeed the first time it occurred to her that they’d been spared something, that even in photographs with no color your eyes still pulled towards her — oh, Mariano’s wife, she’s from Coatzacoalcos. All Imelda got from her was her nose, maybe, and her propensity for baby hair. The twins didn’t even get that.

“Of course, there’s still plenty of work to be done, but we do what we can,” her mother says, and that’s more like her.

With a sigh, Imelda leans in and kisses her cheek, and lets her get on with it.

Doña Flores may have her criticisms, but afterwards, Imelda decides there’s nothing she would have changed.

Héctor has no parents, no godparents, no brothers or sisters or cousins, so Papá Figaro and Ernesto and all the music school apprentices leap in to play the roles of the groom’s family; Ernesto comes to the door first thing in the morning (his hair, of course, is perfectly coifed; her cousins giggle about it and pretend to swoon) bringing limes and chiles, pan de yema with a perfectly slashed crust, chocolate and cinnamon and half-dozen other things Imelda’s aunts will need to add to the mole they ground. It makes him the most popular person there that morning, since the war means these things are only really brought out for weddings. On the walk to church, Héctor leads the band; a half-dozen children in their Sunday best, including a Consequela son who grins and tugs at Imelda’s skirt as he goes prancing by.

Inside the church, everything’s been done up in flowers. Dewdrops of color hang off the altar. It’s breathtaking to see.

But then again, it would be.

Nobody eats well when a war is on, except for the flowers.

Padre Luis smiles at them over the tops of his spectacles, indulgent even as they fumble their Latin, the same invocations they’ve been saying at Mass every week their whole lives turned suddenly strange and foreign in their mouths. At Imelda’s side, Ines rolls her eyes towards the painted saints in their cupola in a clear prayer for patience.

When Héctor leans in at the close, he has to move her crown of flowers to get to her mouth. In retaliation, she takes her finger and nudges his nose aside to reach his. They’re laughing when they kiss.

Above them, the pipe organ takes a deep breath, then fills the church with the opening notes of the recessional, and Imelda and Héctor join hands and raise their voices to meet it.

The music makes God Himself come down from heaven to investigate.

They can hear Him in the belfry; the pleased, sonorous hum resounding inside the church bell even as it stands completely at rest. Ines lifts her wide eyes, and on their other side, Ernesto — who’d spent much of the ceremony wearing the same polite, beleaguered look people get when the engineer from Zacatlán’s been talking to them for too long, like he’s not sure what’s going on and would like it to stop — looks up too, with something new and dawning on his face. The bell keeps humming.

“Well,” says Padre Luis, pleased.

Afterwards, at Casa Consequela, once her aunts emerge with the three types of mole, once the toasts are made (forgettable, mostly, except for Ernesto’s, filling in the role of godparent: he recounts the story of rescuing Héctor from drowning, and finishes it by saying, “I moved Heaven and Earth for you once, compadre, and I will do it again. ¡Salud!”) and Imelda’s been passed around to everyone who matters for a dance, someone suggests she sing for them.

Of course, once Imelda starts singing, she finds a sudden new appreciation for what Ernesto said: let the song sing you.

She feels like she couldn’t stop it, even if she wanted to.

She gets the boys to join in, then the band, then the rest of the wedding party — all the old classics, and a few she’s pretty sure they’ve never heard before. Imelda only stops dancing when her voice scratches, and Héctor takes her out of line and pushes her into a chair, laughingly calling for someone to get the bride a glass of water.

That’s me, Imelda thinks. She’s been going to weddings all her life, and now that it’s hers, the compulsion to look over her shoulder for the actual bride is stronger than she’d thought it’d be.

Someone hands Héctor the glass over her shoulder, she doesn’t see who, and he presents her with it. “Señora.”

Imelda had been about to say “thank you”, but the word brings her up short.

She sloshes water, sitting bolt upright and switching hands with the intention of smacking him.

I am not! she thinks, eighteen years old and indignant at the very idea. A señora! Her! Those are old women. “Señora” is what you get called by someone who doesn’t know better and then you whine about it to your cousins.

Except — she is. A señora. By definition. Héctor’s, specifically.

She narrows her eyes. “Say that again.”

Héctor, who’d clearly been expecting a reaction more along the lines of “get hit”, blinks at her with a startlingly open expression. Then he kneels beside her chair.

“Señora,” he murmurs, and catches her wrist, giving the inside of it a kiss. “Señora, señora, señora,” and with each repetition, another kiss; to her arm, to the sleeve of her Sunday best, to her shoulder. “My wife, Imelda.”

“Okay, okay, I got it,” Imelda gives him a shove. “You’ve worn it out, you’re not allowed to say it again until I’m old and grey. Got it, Señor Imelda?”

“I don’t think that’s how that works,” he complains, and smothers her responding laughter by surging up to kiss her.

 

*

 

When the dancing is done, the groom’s best friend disappears with the bride.

They break into the cathedral. They make a vow.

 

*

 

By the agreement reached between Don Consequela and his niece, her suitor, and Ernesto (or, more accurately, Imelda-and-Héctor-and-Ernesto, that three-headed force,) Imelda and Héctor would lodge at Casa Consequela after the wedding.

Just temporarily, of course, you understand, until something else became available, and Don Consequela bobbed his head, said “oh, sure, sure,” and didn’t believe it for a second. By his reckoning, by the time Héctor became a maestro and tried to move them out, he’d have something cooked up to keep that money right where it was.

The room they get shares not so much a wall with Óscar and Felipe’s so much as several planks of plywood and a sheet, having itself once been part of a larger room.

It has a bed, which is the only feature Imelda cares about — she’s never had Héctor on one.

(“Imelda … “ her brother Óscar says the next morning, with the uniquely pained expression universal to nineteen-year-old boys everywhere.

”Please,” her brother Felipe adds.

She laughs, throaty with it, and says, “You’re telling me two geniuses such as yourselves cannot procure earplugs?”

“Modern science hasn’t invented anything powerful enough,” Óscar snaps back.

Imelda laughs harder.

Later, she breaks away and whispers, “Can you be quiet?”

The cloud’s come down and the lights have all been extinguished except for the one at the gate, so there’s nothing to see Héctor by except what the fog reflects from the moon, and even that does a pretty good job of illuminating his incredulous expression.

“Can I be quiet?” he echoes, close enough to her mouth that she can feel it as much as hear it. “I went from one dormitory of boys to another, of course I know how to be quiet. I’m not the problem.”

She snorts, then says, “We’ll have to be quieter than that.”

“Oh, will we?”

She lets her head fall back to give him room. “And the only way to guarantee is to —“

“Stop?” he suggests, and she feels that toothy grin bloom against her neck.

She digs her nails in. “— to go as slow as possible.”

He cottons on. “To build it up?” He tugs at the ties of her skirt, until they’re pressed flush. “I’m not sure how that will play out in the end, on the quiet front. But, I’m willing to try.”)

It’s also how Imelda finds out that Héctor snores.

Not the kind of snoring that anyone can handle, either, like a dog’s or a baby’s. These are deep, intermittent, nasal snores, and Imelda, frankly, feels a little betrayed. She knew about his phobia of unclean water, she knew about Ernesto, she almost had his baby, for God’s sake — but she didn’t know that he makes this abominable racket? Habitually?

You picked this, she tells herself in resignation.

She lasts four more days.

But that’s it. If something’s not done, she’s going to break some kind of record, going from new bride to the young town widow who dumped her husband down a well. No one would ever convict her for it, but it’d still be embarrassing.

It’s the first compromise of their married lives, made at two in the morning by one sleep-deprived Imelda and one half-awake Héctor, still clutching his shoulder from where his wife hit him with an ewer.

The compromise is this: Imelda goes to sleep first.

Héctor, whose high from a show will usually last longer than hers, joins her once he’s finished with his guitar, or his songbook, or Ernesto. Likewise, she rises before he does, and he gets to try new ways to persuade her to be lazy with him, mi amor, Imelda, please come back to bed.

It’s this routine she’ll think of later, as a staple of her married life: herself, falling asleep to the sight of Héctor hunchbacked over his book, drumming index and middle finger to a metronome’s tick, and waking to his warmth in her bed, or her blanket-roll, or wherever they might be.

And it’s these times, she thinks, when she is leaning down to wake him up, that he is most hers.

 

*

 

Two days after that, the mayor makes an announcement in the plaza: that in exchange for their engineer, San Juan Albán will gift Zacatlán two of their cleverest minds, to apprentice with the Relojes clockmakers. An audible murmur passes through the crowd — before he founded his company, the famous clockmaker of Zacatlán had patented train parts, and that was a business much admired up here, where the third train station in Oaxaca was built. Then the mayor calls the horsemaster’s twins forward to receive his blessing.

“Óscar Consequela Flores,” he calls. “Felipe Consequela Flores.”

Imelda’s looking in that direction, so she sees the color blanch out of her uncle’s face, the way he coughs and splutters and tries to mask his shock. Her brothers had not asked his permission to go to Zacatlán to make clever clocks, and he hadn’t noticed their preparations to leave, disguised as they were by Imelda’s wedding plans.

But it’s not like he can refuse them, not when they’ve got the whole town’s blessing.

Imelda turns back to the front, and meets Óscar’s gaze. The smile he gives her is jubilant, victorious, entirely unselfconscious.

My brothers, saved, she thinks. Now me.

She goes to her uncle with her head covered, tells him that the last stage of Ernesto and Héctor’s apprenticeship requires them to travel north, to Jalisco, and once they do that they will be maestros in name and practice — and with the salary to prove it. It’s not that she wants to leave her family, you understand, and it’s only for a short time.

He’s uninterested. There’s nothing in Jalisco he wants.

“You remember your priorities, girl,” he warns her. “Don’t embarrass us.”

She goes to her mother next, who pulls her into her side, glances a kiss off her temple. “Watch for soldiers. I give you my blessing.”

Likewise, Héctor takes Ernesto and they go to Papá Figaro with their heads covered, tells him they’ve got to go north, to visit Imelda’s family in Jalisco now that she’s married. It’s unavoidable — you know how families are, you understand.

Papá Figaro throws his hands up.

“Very well,” he says, fussily. “You’ll miss the Lenten liturgical season, but fine. Go, with my blessing.”

“What would be the harm in actually finishing up your apprenticeships?” Imelda asks, during a hasty meet-up in the market, their voices drowned out by the shouting of the vendors cutting last minute deals. Fresh fish from Puerto Mexico! Coatzacoalcos! On the train today!

“Because,” Héctor answers, “he’s never going to let it happen.”

“I should have been hooded as a maestro years ago,” Ernesto adds, ducking under a pig’s dissected hindquarters, displayed on a hook over the drain. “But he just keeps putting it off. It’s up to us to declare ourselves done, I guess.”

They pass Ava’s group set up in the narrow space between two stalls, their accordion case propped open in front of them for change. Imelda recognizes the song they’re playing, kicks up her heels and swings her skirts out, and Héctor puts his arm out so she can twirl into him. Ava winks at her as they pass.

Still using their momentum, Héctor swings her around the corner and releases her.

Imelda spins to a halt. “And if he’s not lying? Can we afford that risk?”

“We don’t need a master’s certificate. It’s not like we’re going to put down roots and start a school.”

“Why not?”

“We’ve got you,” Ernesto says.

“The secret weapon, the one we didn’t have before,” Héctor agrees.

“Psh,” Imelda says.

They reach the end of the street and stop, because here’s where they’ll need to split: one way goes up into the cloud, towards the school, and the other down, towards the train station and the Consequela hacienda.

“Everyone got what you need?” Héctor checks. “We know the plan?”

Imelda and Ernesto make affirmative noises, and then there’s an awkward beat where nobody moves. They just wait, and blink at each other.

Then Ernesto jolts.

“Oh, right!” He pivots on his heel and sets up the road alone, obviously having forgotten that Héctor wouldn’t be coming with him.

One week to the day after Imelda Consequela Flores marries Héctor Rivera in front of God and all His saints, she saddles up her pinto mare. Her family rallies around her, badgering and unhelpful and handing her continual, contradictory pieces of advice like if they weigh her down enough, she won’t go.

She hugs her mother tightly, and her brothers even tighter.

“Imelda,” says Felipe.

“Little sister,” says Óscar.

“We don’t have anything for you,” says Felipe.

“You already gave me your horses,” Imelda answers in an undertone. She indicates Héctor and Ernesto, their matching brown mares, with a motion of her head. “We couldn’t do this without them.”

“You’re welcome, then.”

“Will you accept our blessing, as well?”

“Yeah,” says Imelda, and is surprised by how gruff her voice sounds. “You too. I mean — anyway.”

Clearing her throat, she turns away and mounts her horse. She waits until she sees their straight backs disappear into the house, then nudges the pinto’s sides, directing her away.

A hand shoots out and grabs hold of the reins.

Imelda glances down.

Ines steps in close, rubbing the pinto’s nose reassuringly, watching her with a look so steady that Imelda finds herself going still under the weight of it, with a feeling not unlike meeting a predator in the pine forest; an inevitability, of being already caught.

Are you going to do this? her face demands. Without your family? Without your name? Without any of it?

Imelda’s hands tighten into fists, knees unconsciously squeezing the pinto’s sides, though of course she’s not going anywhere: no horse turns away from Ines.

Wouldn’t you? she tries to project back. If you could have your dream, even like this, wouldn’t you take it?

Ines’s brow furrows.

The next instant, she’s worming the ring from her finger, pressing it into Imelda’s hand quicker than Imelda knows what to do about it.

“No,” she gasps aloud, aghast, trying to push it back.

Ines sets her jaw, pulling the pinto’s head forward so it blocks her face from the view of their family — if any of them are watching, if any of them care about the good-byes of the most expendable members of the Consequela household.

“I’ll tell them I lost it in the stables,” she tells Imelda, refusing to take the ring back. “It means nothing to me, it’s just a shackle my husband likes other people to see, you take it. A woman with jewelry always has something to sell, or give, should everything else fail.”

“Ines …”

She cuts her off.

“You go, you go to where Mexico is sickest and … and you sing until it doesn’t remember that anymore, got it?”

And Imelda makes a low noise and bends almost double to crush Ines to her, and Ines embraces her back hard enough to send up a puff of dust, smelling like hay, horses, metal, and home.

 

*

 

In the Land of the Dead her second year there, Imelda sits on a low retaining wall along the parade route with Papá Figaro on one side and Soledad on the other. They watch the kids cavort around in costumes, firing fake guns at each other; their weapons are made of paper mache, and pop out confetti sparks.

“— don’t like you alone in that big compound,” Figaro’s shouting to her above the noise.

“I’m not alone!” Imelda shouts back. “I’ve got Pepita.”

Figaro’s facial tattoos lift with his smile. “You know, alebrijes are supposed to appear to those most in need of them, to guide them on a spiritual journey they’ve not yet made.”

“Thank you, yes, I got the same pamphlet.”

He scratches his chin. “Do you think the bigger the alebrije, the bigger the journey?”

Ach!” exclaims Soledad before Imelda can. She hops off the wall and brushes off her pants. “Listen, if you’re going to waste time grinding bones about philosophy, I’m getting more drinks. Do either of you want anything?”

As she shifts her weight, Imelda catches a glimpse of something heavy, golden at her throat, peeking out between the zipper teeth of her jacket, which is as black and leather as the rest of her ensemble. With a startled noise, she leans forward, hooking the chain on a finger and pulling the necklace out. It’s no charm — it’s a ring.

For a long moment, she just looks at it, sitting on the bones of her palm.

Her cousin Ines’s wedding band.

“You kept it,” she says softly.

“Of course I did,” says Soledad, nonplussed. “You gave it to me, because people were whispering. One of the most expensive things you owned, and you gave it to me without hesitation. It’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me, Mamá Imelda, thank you.”

Imelda shakes her head, thinking of that cold, clear look on Ines’s face, the mountain bare-faced with no fog obscuring it at all.

“I was paying it forward,” she says. “As any woman would, in our situation.”

Soledad smiles and straightens up, so the ring on its chain slips from Imelda’s palm. She tucks it back into her jacket, and says brightly, “So! Drinks?”

When she’s gone, Imelda turns her attention back to the parade, which got quieter once the kids’ section had gone by. Now it’s all young men, and soldaderas too, in their red-white-green blankets, their hats and their bandoliers. Figaro isn’t wrong — it’s a lonely business, waiting for your family to die so that you can rebuild.

She wonders — did she outlive Ines? Is Ines here, what is she el santo to, what is her alebrije, is she free?

Has she gotten her chance, the way Imelda got hers?

“Did I tell you, Imelda,” Figaro says to her, almost conversationally. “That your family never forgave me. They think I engineered it somehow, and wouldn’t believe me when I said I’d been hoodwinked, too. You never wrote.”

And that …

That stings, far worse than Imelda’s expecting.

She swallows. “Is this where you call me a hypocrite?”

He says nothing, and Imelda …

Imelda is not eighteen anymore.

“I’m sorry, Papá,” she says instead, and can tell at once by the way he reacts that he didn’t expect an apology. “I never intended to make it difficult for you.”

 

*

 

Ernesto draws his mare up alongside hers, and waits until Ines releases the pinto’s reins.

“Ready?” he asks.

Imelda tucks the ring into her front pocket, and answers thickly, “Ready.”

Together, they turn to Héctor, who is leaning sideways in his saddle so he can be properly admonished by Imelda’s mother (“no mistresses,” Doña Flores is saying, threateningly, “or I will ring you through the crank like laundry,” and Héctor answers, mystified, “I don’t know where you think I’ll have the time.”)

“Ready?” Ernesto asks him.

“Ready,” says Héctor, straightening up.

Imelda calls one last general good-bye to all her gathered family, and then they turn, and pass through the Consequela gates.

She does not see any of them again in this life.

 

*

 

Here is what you need to know about Ernesto de la Cruz:

1. He lives to be 46 years old.

2. He has no children, accidental or otherwise.

3. Once, a woman comes up to him while he’s signing autographs and says, “por favor, señor, is this you?” which is all the warning Ernesto gets before he’s unceremoniously presented with an old photograph of himself and Héctor and Imelda, one on either side of him, in those ridiculous spangled outfits they pulled out for their routines before they got proper suits. For a moment, he’s thrown entirely out of time, and the urge is kneejerk, hindbrain, the echo of a beat inside of his heart to turn and say, Héctor, would you look at this! But of course no one’s there. It’s like missing your cue, not quite able to catch up to the music — he picks up the photograph, careful to hold it by the edges, and his heart strangles itself neatly, without sound. As if she knows, the Imelda in the picture seems to peek at him sidelong, the kind of look that makes you feel all of an inch tall. “I’m … sorry,” he says slowly, “but I do not quite remember their names.”

4. He has never hit a woman. He has never hit a child. Too much of a decent person, he guesses.

5. The first time he kills a man, they’re still living in Santa Cecilia, and his name is Jorge Guavarrez. The second time, they’re in Mexico City, and his name is Héctor Rivera. The third time, his name is also Héctor, but they’re much older, in bed in Guadalajara. He poisons them, each of them, because that’s what you do with rats.

 

*