PART FIVE: THE CONSEQUENCE
Over the course of your life, you die three deaths.
The first death is your last breath.
The second is a burial, where your coffin becomes a door that closes on the Land of the Living and opens in the Land of the Dead. (This coffin is just a figure of speech, Imelda learns. Not everybody gets a grave — there are wartime body pits, or the open ocean, or the desert under a clear sky, or the sewer leading out of the city.)
The third comes when the last living person who remembers you, or carries a story told by someone who remembers you, dies too, and you pass out of the Land of the Dead. The third death is the death of your influence on the world.
No one knows what happens after that.
The Department of Family Reunions assigns her a case worker who, in lieu of eyebrows, has fanciful peacock feathers tattooed on her brow. In the middle of her welcome speech, she cheerfully admits that she doesn’t need her half-moon spectacles, really, but they make her feel professional, don’t you think?
“Okay,” says Imelda, who for decades has watched her daughter and granddaughters and all their peers dress more and more incomprehensibly, and has her stoic “okay” down pat.
Although — she blinks — to this woman, it’s probably Imelda who’s the young one with the strange fashion.
She’s right: her agent left the Land of the Living in 1822, having served in the household of Agustín de Iturbide through his entire military campaign, and died the same year he declared himself emperor of independent Mexico. She tells Imelda this as she helps her compare sets of glass eyeballs (Imelda is partial to the purple ones, but decides on a brown set that matches what she’d had in life.) Proudest day of her life — the coronation, she means, not her dying. She was sorry to miss it, and she’d prayed that his reign would be a long and happy one, but Emperor Agustín was executed by firing squad just two years after that, so that’s Mexico for you, really.
“Have you given much thought to your family?” she asks, once Imelda picked out her eyes, hairpiece, and a few items of clothing.
“I think about nothing else,” Imelda answers distractedly.
She wants to know what she’s expected to do about her waist, as apparently being a skeleton means she has none. Do people really cinch it all the way in to their spine? She feels rather like an ant, like someone could take thumb and forefinger and pinch her in half.
“I meant,” her agent corrects. “The household you’re going to join, now that you’re here.”
Imelda blinks. She looks up.
After an expectant pause, the agent says, “I have a list of households you are entitled to by birthright and by death rite, if you’d like to look. If there’s another you would like that’s not on my list, we can put together a petition. How about that?”
She takes Imelda to her office, where she picks up an enormous guest book off her desk, pushing the messy piles of paper to the side.
The page she opens to is empty, but as soon as Imelda pulls up a chair, marigold light spills across the top, coalescing into a header and a crest.
“Flores,” the agent reads out loud. “Your mother’s household — “
“No,” says Imelda firmly.
Her mother held Imelda responsible for her own fate but never did anything about her own, a weakness Imelda spent all her adult life resenting her for. After all, if you work hard at staying angry at someone you don’t have to try to understand them.
She leans back, folding her arms across her chest. Her bones knock up against each other with a sound like hollow wood, and, disquieted, she darts a sidelong look at that book open on the desk. Names are still coalescing on the page, written by an invisible hand; wherever her mother wound up after death, she’s there with a big, rambling clan, and hopefully as far away from Imelda’s uncle as one woman could get. The thought makes her throat feels like pulp — strange, that, since she has no flesh.
The agent waits another beat. “You’re sure? That’s a no to Casa Flores?”
She turns the page, where another family’s name takes shape in orange marigold ink. This time, Imelda’s sure she knows what it’ll say.
“Consecuencias. Sorry, no — Consequela —“
“No. I want nothing to do with them.”
“All right,” says the clerk.
The next few pages are more of the same, as the Consequelas splintered and got to work on pretending the rest of them didn’t exist, which is surprising; Don Consequela had made such a fuss about harmony, after all. Imelda could claim any of them, if she wanted.
“No,” she says, turning her head to study the room instead. She was in an office like this just last week, with Coco, discussing finances with a lawyer. Just in case.
“How about this one?”
The book flips towards her. She glances down at it. The header doesn’t say Consequela this time. It says Rivera. And there’s only one name underneath it.
“Your husband,” the agent says helpfully.
Imelda recoils in her chair like she’d been struck.
“Sure.” She gestures. “Here he is.”
Like it’s that simple.
She could say yes — just one word, and after fifty years having no idea where he was, she could drag him up to stand before her and —
Imelda’s on her feet and across the room without being entirely certain how she got there.
She folds her arms tightly. Her bones creak like a bad stair. She unfolds them. She moves her feet, then moves them back.
She’s imagined Héctor a dozen places, some realistic, some not — in Mexico City trying to rewrite the narrative with Ernesto, across the border in Guatemala living as a woman and teaching like Papá Figaro — but it’s been years now since she’d let herself be bothered with it, this mystery of her missing husband. She’d assumed that he was simply off somewhere. Obsolete, music-wise. Pot-bellied, working in a miscellany shop with bars on the window, another wife married without much curiosity and children and dinner on a tray in front of the television.
She forced him down into somebody small, boring, easy to hate. It was the cruelest thing she could think to do.
But it never occurred to her, not even once, that she might have outlived him.
“Is that … a no?” her agent hazards a guess. “If you are estranged —“
“Very,” wrenches itself out of Imelda’s clenched jaws, but behind the desk her agent looks unperturbed. This is why they’re chosen for these jobs, she guesses: they’ve seen it all. The Department of Family Reunions remains unflappable, no matter the … ahem, the skeletons in your closet.
“That’s all right,” she says, pulling the book back towards her and flipping to the next page. “We’re not done, there —”
And all at once, Imelda knows what she’s going to do.
She turns around. Golden letters form the name of the next household. She sees the upside-down reflection spiraling outward in those half-moon spectacles.
“— is one other —“
And then her agent chokes.
The woman who’d once served the emperor of Mexico can’t finish her sentence. Her eyes flick up, wide and disbelieving.
Imelda doesn’t wait to hear it.
“I’ve made my decision. I,” she draws herself upright, “will forge my own household.”
She doesn’t know if it’s intentional or if she’s just not used to the procedure, but it turns out that finding other people in the Land of the Dead is difficult. Granted, she came from the kind of small town where locating someone was only a matter of approaching his grandmother at her festival planning committee and asking her when was the last time he’d come to her table for a meal.
It might definitely be intentional.
After all, not everyone wants to be found by the people they knew in life.
Imelda takes the trolley to the Department of Family Reunions. The cable car trundles right through the heart of the building, and as she steps onto the platform, she stops and looks up, appreciating the play of light through the atrium overhead, a vast criss-cross of glass and steel beams. At the far end, the stained glass skull face cuts the walkways below into droplets of color.
The Library of Records is in the basement, beginning with stone tablets on one side of the room and progressing to a microfiche machine on the other. The Land of the Dead, Imelda has learned, is at least ten to twenty years behind the Land of the Living in terms of its technological advances. The creative minds from one need to die before the other can reap its inventions.
She finds the kiosk and fills out a stamp card, which she submits to the correct box based on the date of death.
A week later, she receives a note with an address.
It’s another headache and a half to try and sort what to do about that. It’s not like anybody planned the city when they built it, and the fact you have to take in vertical dimensions as well as the horizontal means that it takes Imelda another week to figure out where she’s going.
“I don’t suppose you want to help me?” she asks Pepita, who rolls onto her back under the table so she can bat at her feathered toy mouse. She pins it with her hind legs and lets out a triumphant bird-like screech.
“Okay,” Imelda agrees, and fetches her hat.
She can’t tell which half Pepita takes after more, the eagle or the cat. She shows no interest in getting into the leather or messing with Imelda’s tools, unlike that useless dog alebrije with the bumblebee wings. Pepita came into her life when Imelda had no other company except for the construction, the city noises, and a periodical full of unsolved murders. She’s only a fledgling, but Imelda quite likes the size she is and hopes she doesn’t grow much larger.
An hour later, when she’s several levels down surrounded by increasingly gothic architecture, she resigns herself to the fact she probably got it wrong.
“Hmm,” she says. She looks down at the address written down for her, then back up.
It’s an abbey, but its caretakers must have passed into Los Olvidados long ago. Patches show through in the roofing, and the stone hasn’t been washed to the degree Imelda expects from small, beloved places. It’s not abandoned, though. It’s now occupied by a gang of — how do you describe them? Hoodlums? Delinquents? They slouch across the stone steps and eye her with disinterest from underneath their bizarrely-styled hair. They’ve got an awful lot of paraphernalia stapled to their bones. That can’t be comfortable.
Beyond them, in the little stone lot where people would tie their horses, a small fleet of motorbikes lean up against each other.
Eventually, someone gets tired of ignoring her.
“What does she want?” he asks in a carrying whisper. Chains dangle from the sleeves of his leather jacket like tassels, and he’s modified himself so that it looks like he’s got an advanced case of bone cancer, spiky growth all across the dome of his bare skull. “Is she simple?”
Imelda’s hackles go up, but then another — man? Woman? Their clothes are ambiguous and they aren’t wearing hair or any other clear signifier — fine, another punk says back, “Be nice, she’s new. Look at her eyes jumping.”
Diverted, Imelda scowls. It takes practice to get your eyeballs pointed in the same direction, they’re only glass.
She lifts her chin and declares, “I’m looking for a Soledad. Would have arrived in 1950.”
A woman stands.
Her leather jacket goes down past the ends of her fingers. Her lips are tattooed black, her hairpiece cut short and dyed pink on one side of the part, turquoise on the other. When she turns to climb over the railing, Imelda sees the back of her jacket says CALAVERAS in big raised letters.
She approaches Imelda slowly, taking her in from her boots to her apron to pillbox cap.
“Doña Rivera? Is that you?”
At the sound of her voice, tremulous and entirely at odds with the pointy exterior, Imelda turns wobbly, like one good knock could go through her bones like a bowling ball. The ground is not where she left it, and the sky swims.
Memories rush in and recede, and she puts a hand out for balance.
Soledad entered their lives when Coco stopped being the poorest in her pre-Communion class; wealth being the kind of distinction that kids monitor religiously. The title passed to Soledad, hand-in-hand with Coco’s friendship, and she became a regular fixture at Casa Rivera from that moment on.
Imelda remembers them at eight, when the twins built them the tandem swing; at eleven, getting caught with a tube of lipstick trying to look like the actresses from the de la Cruz movies; at fifteen, together in the market, Imelda trailing far enough behind them they could pretend they were out on their own, weighing mangos and testing the avocado, pointing out the Pueblan mole made with turkey and the Oaxacan moles, green and black, and inevitably spending their money on something silly instead of necessary, which was fine, because Imelda could afford it. It was Imelda’s greatest dream, to be able to afford frivolity for her daughters’ sake.
When they grew up, Soledad had three boys to Coco’s two girls, and after her death they lived with their grandparents until they could escape and move to Mexico City, one by one — and there’d been nothing Imelda could do.
She could have stood outside that hut and shouted, she was MY daughter. What did you EVER give her besides misery and shame and poverty?
And, who stood by her when everyone else rushed to tell her she made a mistake? Who proved to her that she could keep her children and her job? I was her family, not you!
But she had no claim.
The pueblo had been bereft of children’s voices for a long time. In 1968, the oldest son — now a father himself — sent his children back to the safety of Santa Cecilia, to his godmother Coco whom he knew he could depend on, and Imelda listened to them shouting in the courtyard to test the acoustics and itched to hold babies again.
“I respect that you are trying to be … modern,” she’d said to Victoria and Elena, not that long ago. The girls were in their early twenties and Coco and Julio were shepherding the children to school. “But are you —“
“No,” said Victoria, without looking up from the periodical from the technical institute with its spread on the Russian cosmonauts.
Elena, always looking first to her older sister to see what she was doing, nodded and added, “I’m not interested in husbands, abuelita.”
And that had been that.
“Soledad,” she says now, in a voice that’s been flattened and ground down like it’s on a metate. She scrapes it up.
And because she can, she says it again. “Soledad. You — look different.”
“I —“ Soledad glances down at herself, and says, stiltedly, “Outsides finally match the insides, I guess. You — you don’t know what parts of your skin ache and itch and — and don’t fit until you don’t have skin anymore.”
“I suppose, yes,” Imelda says weakly.
Soledad presses her black lips together.
A long beat passes.
”Oh!” Heedless of their audience, Imelda breaks and starts forward with her arms outstretched —
— and halts.
“What,” she says lowly, “are those?”
Soledad lifts her heel. The sole of her boot comes away, flopping against the underside of her foot. They are, Imelda thinks, one of the worst pairs of shoes she’s seen in years. They are hideous.
She glares, but Soledad just looks back at her, eyes shining.
“It is you,” she says softly. “Imelda. Oh, I’ve been waiting for — I can’t begin to tell you how much I missed everyone, doña —“
“Ay, I missed you, too — but I really need to know what you did to your feet!”
Which is how Imelda winds up making new boots for Soledad and her entire biker gang, who ride the circuits around the skyscrapers and are actually very pleasant people once you get to know them. Good with directions. Imelda’s not so lost, after that.
She hears the shouting as soon as she leaves the office, folding her ownership paperwork along the creases and tucking it into the front pocket of her apron.
“— the best time or place to do this?” someone is saying, sounding exasperated.
Other voices immediately shout back, overlapping each other.
“¡Oye! Let him!”
“He has the right!”
Curious, Imelda heads back down the hall, her heels soundless on the plush carpeting. Where Family Reunions is all steel beams and glass, the Department of Afterlife Affairs is a sturdy columnal monument, hemmed in by its high-relief sculptures of famous scenes from Mexican history, all their participants now skull-faced. She stops at the railing, squeezing in between two other spectators and peering down into the main rotunda. There’s something happening on the ground level that’s attracting a crowd.
“Okay, fine.” That’s a department official, looking like he wished he took his lunch break ten minutes ago so he wouldn’t have been caught in this. He produces a microphone from seemingly nowhere, taps it, and says, magnified, “José Oscar Reyes de Silva —“
“Please,” interrupts the well-dressed young man from the center of the crowd. “Just call me Pepé.”
The woman standing beside her at the railing sucks at her teeth and says, “Ach, I thought that was him. That’s a damn shame, he’s a good agent — never met a Young and Sudden he couldn’t befriend. We’ll miss him.”
“What’s going on?” Imelda asks.
She startles, eyebrows hopping. “Ay!” she exclaims, taking Imelda in. “A mountain girl?”
Sure enough, Imelda hears the echo of her own accent: those distended vowels that set her apart in Santa Cecilia, that Óscar and Felipe eventually smoothed out but Imelda never did. She smiles, half-turning.
This woman is, perhaps, the most stunning person Imelda has yet met: glossy long eyelashes, hair that’s been beehived into a turquoise tower festooned with stars, make-up visibly polishing up her bare arms and the bones of her face. She’s in a trailing, glittering dress that puts Imelda in mind of mermaids, the way they must look before someone thinks to stick them in a story where they lose their voices.
“1930,” she says by way of introduction, sticking her hand out, and Imelda shakes it and answers, “1969.”
Another startled bounce of those eyebrows, but then she smiles. She’s got a barn-door gap between her front teeth, but where it would be unfortunate on anyone else, on her it’s just charming.
“Oh, dear,” she remarks, “so you’re brand new!”
“Kind of.” Imelda supposes that to some people, anything from this century is still brand new, but 1930 is recent enough. In living memory, as they say. “What’s happening down there, do you know?”
The woman puts her hand on the railing and gestures. “That man there is getting his light claimed.”
“Usually it’s not such a public spectacle, it must have been very sudden,” she muses, scratching her chin thoughtfully, and then she points. “See the other man? Over there?”
“No,” Imelda says, except then suddenly she does.
They’re standing close together, with the department official between them as mediator; the dignity and poise of Just Call Me Pepé steals all the attention, is all. The other man has his hands pressed to his sternum, passionately protesting something. A rabbit alebrije with a bright painted tortoise shell hops agitatedly around his feet. The mediator extends his hand, pleading patience.
“He’s saying he was murdered. They’ve just confirmed it was Pepé who did it.”
“— sorry,” Imelda hears Just Call Me Pepé say from below. The microphone picks up his voice, the quiet solemnity in it. “I regretted it every day of my life. I hoped you would find me here, I wanted it to be easy for you to find me. I want you to have whatever it is I can give you.”
“Oh, how generous.” Bitterness cakes the other man’s voice. “I wanted my life back!”
“He’s going to claim his light. He has the right. His marigold light,” the woman beside her clarifies, seeing Imelda still doesn’t get it. “That means all the offerings, all the memories Pepé gets from the Land of the Living will go to him instead, and sustain him. Since Pepé robbed him of his life, he’ll pay him back in death.”
Imelda shifts in place.
The man she killed in Michoacán … could he have done this to her?
“What’s going to happen to … ?”
“Oh, he’ll continue on for a time, but he’ll fade out faster. As is only right, of course, it’s just a shame. He’s a good agent,” she says again.
Or … is that what happened instead? He’d killed those men in the cantina, he’d been ready to put a bullet in her — could the people he killed already have claimed him, and that’s why she never found him?
“That … explains some things, actually,” she says hoarsely.
And she doesn’t know what does it, what she said, but the woman suddenly goes still.
Imelda startles, jerking back and looking her up and down.
“I’m … sorry,” she starts. “I don’t …”
She’s sure she would have remembered meeting someone like this, who’s taken everything there is about being a skeleton and made it beautiful. She can’t imagine what she would have looked like, before.
Except she can.
Her teeth. That gap.
On a plain woman, it looks horsey, and she’d recognize it anywhere.
Her throat constricts. “Ines?”
Her cousin Ines lights up all at once, from her high heels to her painted nails to the ends of her exquisitely long eyelashes. Smiling so broadly she seems made entirely of teeth, she swoops down, and Imelda finds herself with her arms full of skeleton, and a mouthful of towering hair.
“Ay yi yi, Imelda! Prima, is it really you?”
“Ines! What … what happened? You’re — completely different!”
She draws back, and strikes a pose. Like with Soledad, it’s as stark as night and day. “Do you like it? Suits me, huh?”
And then they’re both laughing, and talking over each other, all in a rush. They head out into the sunshine together.
Imelda never does learn what happens at the impromptu trial of José de Silva, Just Call Me Pepé, case agent for the Young and Sudden Deaths. She never hears what becomes of the man whose life he took, all those years ago.
This part will never get old.
“And this,” Imelda says, with pride, “is my alebrije.”
Ines whistles appreciatively. “Wow.”
Pepita, who lifted her head when Imelda came through the gate, settles her chin back down on her paws, lidding her eyes with a profound lack of concern. She’s now the size of a small truck, and still growing — Imelda’s glad they had made this introduction while Pepita was lying down, because she’s going through that gangly adolescent phase where her eagle half is growing faster than her cat half, so her hindquarters are disproportionately large compared to the front of her and have a tendency to carry her instead of the other way around.
“Did you know she was going to get this big?”
“No,” Imelda says cheerfully. “I knew that she was mine, but I thought she’d stay small.”
It makes sense, though, once Imelda stopped worrying about the integrity of her furniture and took the time to think it through. Pepita was every cat Imelda had ever been kind to, ever sheltered or fed. (In seventy years, Imelda had been kind to a lot of cats.) And the way all humans are just bones in the Land of the Dead, all cats are jaguars.
She runs the back of her hand along Pepita’s feathery cheeks. Pepita lifts her head, chuffing out a breath that stirs her hairpiece. Imelda had named her for the old Christmas story, Pepita who had offered baby Jesus the thing she thought was prettiest because she couldn’t afford anything else — or, more accurately, for the time Imelda stole a paper poinsettia off the altar because she figured baby Jesus had enough and could stand to share a little bit. A beautiful thing, kept for herself.
She looks back. Ines plants her hands on her hips, staring up at the shop. “Is this all yours?”
“Mine and my family’s, when they join me.” Imelda turns around. Her contractor accomplished so much: the shop with the house ringed behind it and stacked on top of it, all parts twisting into each other to support the structure of the skyscraper as a whole — and whatever construction will eventually be built on top.
“Your team did a good job,” Ines echoes her thoughts. “Well, they would have to. El santo.”
She follows Imelda inside, ducking down so she doesn’t bump her beehived hair on the doorframe. “You have pictures of your daughter, right?” she says, straightening up. “That’s always the first thing we take on our first visit to our ofrendas.”
“Yes,” Imelda agrees.
“I want to see her. Our prima Rita thought it unlikely you’d ever be able to bear children — what a joy to hear that she’d been wrong!”
For one moment, then another, Imelda has no idea who she’s talking about. And then, with a creak like a rusty faucet, her memory spits it out: the first time she ever performed in front of a crowd had been at her cousin’s wedding to — Rita. And when Imelda got pregnant, she was the only one besides Ines who didn’t immediately rush to condemn her. Aren’t we concerned that her monthlies haven’t stopped? she’d asked —
— and no one had listened to her.
“Oh, Imelda, I’m sorry,” Ines is at her side, suddenly. “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“It’s fine,” Imelda says shortly. “What about you? How are your children?”
From what she remembers, Ines had never been the maternal sort. Marriage and motherhood were two things she did mostly to get people to leave her alone so she could go back to what she really wanted to do.
“I have all their pictures,” her cousin assures her. “Remind me to show you.” A beat. “One of them’s here in the Land of the Dead. Rogir.”
Imelda’s hand goes to her heart. “Oh, no. Ines.”
“He’s a faceless,” she continues, in a brisk sort of way. “So it’s hard to know where he’s at, exactly.”
“Ines,” says Imelda again, with mounting distress. How can she act so casual about something like that?
“But I have his identification number memorized. Some agencies keep a public record of their payroll, so you can keep tabs that way. He did security detail for Alvaro Obregón when Obregón first arrived, you know,” she adds, not without pride, and maybe a little defiance.
They’re under the portraits now. The Madonna, Benito Juárez, and Casa Rivera.
Imelda is at a loss for what to say.
Ines is not, and smiles upwards. “Tía Ngobe would love this. She said that these portraits were the first thing Oaxacans did that she wished the Veracruzitos would do, too. God, Mexico, family — the only things that matter.”
It’s another blow, effortless and brutal, and Imelda moves her hand to make sure it hasn’t bent her bones.
She hadn’t expected to hear her mother’s name — her real name, not the Spanish name they gave her in Coatzacoalcos — and it’s a sudden swamp of memory, threatening the integrity of the ground under her feet. She’s a child again, standing outside a conversation that excludes her.
“What does she think about all this?” Ines asks, oblivious, and then registers what’s on Imelda’s face. “Wait. You have talked to your mother, right?”
“No,” Imelda says shortly. “No, I want nothing to do with any of them.”
“But,” she tries. “She’s your mother! You’re el santo to — you said —“
Imelda hisses through clenched teeth. She knows better than Ines what she is el santo to, thank you.
“— and you don’t think that’s a sign?”
A beat, and Imelda draws herself up. Next to Ines, with her heels and her hair, she’s not that imposing, but her clothes are immaculate and she made her boots herself, with her years of hard-won expertise. Dignity counts for something.
“We are highlanders,” she says, stout and confident. “You and I. Mountain people, unyielding as stone and bone. I carried it with me, that’s all.”
As soon as she arrived, Imelda Rivera became el santo to the first thing you see in San Juan Albán; that moment people step off the train and the sight of it catches in them, like the wonder has followed them all that way and this too is its homecoming, coming to rest in their eyes. The mist-flushed green of the pine trees, the candy-colored buildings like presents on a shelf, the neighboring peaks visible through a ribcage of clouds.
A beauty incomparable to anything else, and Imelda left in 1918 and never looked back, but it didn’t matter because it came with her anyway — it was never the mountain she wanted to leave behind.
Ines’s last words had been, “oh, just give it to me, I’ll do it,” and now she’s el santo to a cave on the Sierra Mazateca, the next mountain to the north of Sierra Juárez where the cloud forest forms under more sheltered conditions. Where the fierce, pouring wind on Sierra Juárez made for elfin trees, across the Rio Santo Domingo they grow over a hundred feet tall, sheltering fat bromeliads and blankets of mushrooms and caves that never seem to be where you last put them. Ines is el santo to the feeling you get in a place like that, like at any moment you could be swallowed.
Forced to live small in life, in death she works as a coordinator in the Plaza de la Cruz where she frequently meets and greets celebrities, innovators, and hopeful musicians playing in the Battle of the Bands.
“I had Agustín Lara on vinyl, you know, and he signed it for me,” she brags to Imelda, crossing her legs and bouncing her foot, her strappy high-heeled shoe clinging to the ends of her bony toes. “Although I don’t suppose you —“
“I know who Agustín Lara is,” Imelda says, a little too sharply. He had his own radio show for awhile: La Hora Intima. The church women brought it up in their meetings a lot, forgetting even about Imelda’s ban on music, which was notable because Imelda worked hard to make herself unforgettable.
“Right,” Ines flaps a hand. “I —“
“We met him running mezcal during the war. He was scrawnier, back then.”
A beat passes, and then Ines’s face does something strange.
“You had such an extraordinary life,” she murmurs.
Imelda shifts uncomfortably. “Not really, I didn’t like who he became,” she argues, half-remembering the accusations about Lara’s conduct towards the daughter he adopted (and later married) that turned her stomach.
“He’s considered the godfather of the bolero — that big band sound that Ernesto de la Cruz is famous for. Lara supplemented the scores to his movies.”
Imelda snorts. That means he did all the scores for the Ernesto de la Cruz movies. Composer, de la Cruz was not.
(She’ll remember this thought, later.)
She stands, collecting her mug and Ines’s as well, taking them to the sink. The cabinets are so new they still occasionally shed sawdust onto the counter; she briskly wipes them down.
After a long moment, Ines speaks.
“I don’t know how to impress upon you the currency I had when I first arrived here, being someone who’d known Ernesto de la Cruz in person, in those early days when not enough people had died yet for us to have much of his music. Yes, I would tell people, he went to the music school in my town. His friend married my cousin. A lot of who I’ve become —“ she gestures to herself, up and down, the sequined dress and the silver stars in her hair. “— is thanks to that minuscule connection.
“But you — “
“No,” Imelda interrupts. “Not me. I’m a shoemaker, prima, I don’t pretend to be anything more than that. I didn’t change anything. I’m no revolutionary, no Adelita, and I’m not —“
— a musician anymore.
To Imelda, her whole life had been a reaction to the actions of other people, beginning with the carelessness of her own family and ending in Mexico City, the radium, Franco helping Coco change her bedsheets without having to be asked.
There are only two instances where Imelda can say with certainty that she took charge — truly took charge and wrote the narrative, no permission asked, instead of shouting angrily at something as it was already happening. The two greatest thefts of her life: she stole herself and her brothers out of San Juan Albán, and she stole herself and Coco from the brink of poverty.
“And,” she’s speaking now to the washcloth in her hand, the countertop, “I am not likely to be any of those things now. But I can still have a positive effect on the Land of the Living. That’s my responsibility, to be el santo.”
When at last she turns around, she finds her cousin watching her with a peculiar look.
“You think,” Ines starts, haltingly. “You think that’s only true in the Land of the Dead? That the el santo principle doesn’t exist anywhere else?”
Slowly, Ines rises to her feet. “You think,” she continues, with building momentum, “you were not an inspiration to others when you were alive? That we cannot have a profound effect on each other when we are still living?”
Her heels click to a stop beside Imelda, who doesn’t look up.
“You say you weren’t a soldadera and maybe that’s true, but you traveled all over, yes? Inspired people with your music?”
“Bah,“ Imelda shifts away. Music brought her nothing but misery.
“No. Listen to me. You played your part — as too did the women who fed, who fought, who picked bullets out of stinking wounds. All the kindnesses you paid forward — to your daughter, to your family, to friends and strangers. Every day we were alive, we had the chance to be a little saint in the lives of others, as they had the chance to be saints in ours.”
She reaches out. Her fingers close over Imelda’s shoulder, her rings knocking bone.
“Imelda, we were already changing the world and each other by being the best version of ourselves,” she says, softer now. “The Land of the Dead just gave it a tangible name. We are, all of us, in life and in death, the work of all saints.”
Franco marries Elena three years later, and buys her a scooter with a basket on the back, so she can pick up rolls of shoe leather from the tannery without having to load up an entire cart to haul across the cobblestones. It just doesn’t make sense, not for the small orders.
Everyone warns him, she’s going to hate it, you’re bringing change and you know how she is about change, she digs her heels in about everything! Born screaming “no!” and never bothered to stop, that’s Elena. You’ve seen her — if she waited any longer to marry you, you’d both be starting off with one foot in the grave! Twenty-seven is old enough.
Franco listens, and smiles his mild smile, and carries on anyway. He knows who he’s marrying.
You think he doesn’t know who protected him, all through his school years? You think he doesn’t know a guardian angel when he sees one?
In the wrong hands, protectiveness is no better than a bludgeon, and how can Elena be so against change when she’s got a sister like Victoria? No, he knows her. She’s fond of those cosmonauts, of her books about alien red planets, of the idea that someone, somewhere, has landed on the moon and they’re fighting hard to take the next step from there. That all of God’s creation extends into the stars and He is just waiting for them to come see it.
(Although, she would rather someone else do it. They’ve got a business to run, here.)
Elena Esposito Rivera goes into her marriage with a vehicle she can depend on, as much a boon for their shoe shop as for their daily lives, and in her opinion there’s no better way to start a marriage. She spends an entire month wearing her goggles just because she can, placing the helmet down in a place of honor underneath the Madonna, Juárez, Casa Rivera — that scooter is the most beloved vehicle in the Rivera family until 1990, when Franco and Berto take out a loan to buy a truck.
Imelda learns all this when she visits that year for Día de los Muertos.
There’s hot atole left out for her, and a new patented heel that she’d read about but hadn’t lived long enough to see, and photographs by the ofrenda that she flips through. When she’s done, she goes outside to where everyone’s milling around the table.
Music plays faintly from someone else’s home, but inside the courtyard it’s peaceful and quiet, the marigold petals stirring across the stones — the same stones, in fact, that Imelda had laid down herself that first year in Santa Cecilia. The cypress branches shush them with every breeze. She sits down alongside her brothers (they’re seventy-four, pocked with sun spots, and she’s spent all year missing them and somehow doesn’t stop aching, even sitting beside them.) She listens to Coco’s jokes, and the groaning laughter is better than anything a radio could play. If she closes her eyes to the sight of her own white bones, she can pretend nothing’s changed at all — except she can’t, because that’s Victoria coming across the courtyard, and she’s wearing pants. Imelda almost chokes.
At the marigold bridge, Soledad waits for her.
“Did you know they were dating?” she demands.
“I didn’t,” Imelda responds, drawing up alongside. “I saw him at the house last year, but I just assumed he was there because it’s a holiday and he’s family. All your children are family,” she adds, with deliberate emphasis.
Soledad looks down, lifts the toe of one boot, then the other.
“Doña Rivera —“
“That’s the last thing you should be calling me,” Imelda corrects her, still taking care to be kind.
Something strange, desolate, wanting yawns across Soledad’s face. Looking past the leather and the spikes and the jewelry stapled to her bones gets easier once you start — and all at once, Imelda sees the little girl again, swinging on the tandem swing with Coco.
She sees the young woman — the one who’d tried to hide in Coco’s room, nineteen years old and in a family way.
“You need to tell my mother,” Coco had said, standing over her.
“I can’t tell your mother!” Soledad hissed back, red-eyed, puffy-faced.
Tell me what? Imelda almost said, except then Soledad put a hand to her back to stretch out her spine with an unhappy noise, drawing her waistband taut across her belly just long enough to make the shape underneath unmistakable.
She stepped inside, picking up the white cat and depositing it outside the door, which she shut with a snap. Both girls startled and drew together guiltily.
She moved the detritus from Coco’s current leather-working project (insoles for a boot, she thought, judging by the padding) and sat down on the edge of her bed, gesturing for Soledad to join her. She came meek as a mouse, her chin tucked to her chest and the part in her greasy hair cleaved straight down her scalp like someone had whacked it out of her head.
“Your man?” she asked. “Will he marry you?”
Soledad’s knuckles whitened. “No, doña,” she said miserably.
“He knows the situation?”
“It’s not her fault, Mamá!” Coco interjected. “He showed his true colors the second it looked like he was going to face consequences — or face any responsibility at all!”
“But he cannot leave you like this, surely,” Imelda’s attention volleyed from one to the other. “Even my husband did the right thing when he embarrassed me, and you know how useless he was.”
Coco made a noise like she’d shut her fingers in a drawer.
“That he will not — to leave you like — oh, I could spit! The egotistical self-absorption of young men today is unbelievable,” Imelda started, but took one look at their faces and realized this wasn’t the time for an in-my-day lecture. Soledad still had her head down, shoulders drawn up around her ears, like it was somehow her fault she found the one man even more useless than the musician, to whom all useless men were measured.
Swallowing hard, Coco found her voice. “You never told me that!”
“What?” Imelda blinked. Then, “oh, no, not you. The time before you. I was already married when God granted you to me.”
Another complicated series of facial expressions, and her voice rose.
“You had another baby? I didn’t know that!”
“I did, and it is a tragedy I will tell you about another time,” Imelda said, with a pointed hike of her eyebrows. “Right now we’re focusing on Soledad.”
Except there wasn’t much of Soledad to focus on, she’d hunched herself down so small. Coco wavered on her feet, like she didn’t know who she should be standing beside. The hovering wasn’t helping.
Imelda sighed. “Mija, can you fetch a wet cloth? Cold compress,” she added for Soledad’s benefit. “Will reduce the swelling from the crying.”
After she was gone, Imelda looked again at the girl sitting on the edge of her daughter’s bed, and was struck at once by the memory of herself, surrounded by a judge and jury of her mother, her aunts, her cousins. The interrogation she underwent. The shame.
She pushed herself up and knelt down in front of her, leaning in so they could look each other in the eye.
“Are you eating well? Have you bled any?”
A blink. “I — no, my monthlies stopped. I’m eating — fine. I want a lot of strange things, is all.”
“That’s not unusual. You’re sure about the bleeding?”
Imelda exhaled in relief.
Soledad bit her lip, then rocked forward, so they were whispering.
“How am I going to raise it? I won’t be married, I’m going to lose my job, I — how can I? I can’t be its mother, I don’t know how, I can’t even get a lump to stick around and marry me, how —”
“That might be so,” Imelda interrupted, firmly, and Soledad gulped her words back. She clearly hoped that Imelda would disagree. “And it might not. But you know who doesn’t care about any of that? This baby. You’re its mother, that’s the first and foremost thing it wants you to be. In its eyes, you are no different than the richest Castellan woman, than the Mother Mary herself. As for the rest —”
Inspiration struck her, just like that, and Imelda sat back and worked the wedding band from her finger.
“My cousin gave me this. She thought someday I might need it,” and Soledad’s eyes doubled in size when Imelda pressed it into her palm. “So it’s only right that it goes to you, because you need it, too.”
Soledad balked. “I can’t take this! It’s the richest piece of jewelry you own!”
“If the world needs you to be married, then be married. Make one up. Make him as believable or as unbelievable as you like — that you’re seen to be in pocket is more importantly than being in pocket. And you get to keep your bed to yourself,” she added as an afterthought.
“I can’t …”
But even as she watched, something stirred in Soledad’s eyes; the beginnings of an idea.
That’s your stealing look, said a voice from deep in Imelda’s memory. What are we going to get away with?
She gave her knee a shake. “If the actresses on your posters can make people believe anything she tells them for the length of a motion picture, then so can you.”
Slowly, Soledad closed her fingers around the ring.
The rumors that followed weren’t always fair — well, rumors are never fair, but Soledad garnered some of the worst until Santa Cecilia realized they weren’t getting rid of her and adapted. She spent her days pounding out tortillas that she sold door-to-door in the evenings, because love is all well and good but you can’t feed your children on it, Imelda knows, and if someone wanted to be awful about it, they’d say to you, be careful, or that girl’s next child will have your husband’s face.
Her oldest son was five when Coco married Julio Esposito the furniture-maker’s son and had Victoria, and his sons weren’t much older when they came to live with the Riveras, after the massacre at the Olympics.
And now — now they’re at the foot of the marigold bridge, Soledad’s youngest son has married Coco’s youngest daughter, and that makes her —
“Mija,” says Imelda, with feeling, and opens her arms, and Soledad floods into them at once, saying, “Mamá, Mamá.”
— properly, at last.
In Santa Cecilia, they install a grand piano on the rooftop of the community center with its charming view of the valley and a bower for wedding receptions — except they don’t winch the piano tight enough, and when it slips and jars the metal supports, the whole scaffolding comes apart and collapses, killing two.
Óscar and Felipe are quite pleased, all things considered.
“Saved us the trouble of dying separately,” they tell Imelda, inspecting their hairpieces, probing at the empty spaces where their noses used to be. “We always wanted to die together, but could never come to a good conclusion on how.”
“Although it’s a shame we didn’t get to engineer any last-minute surprises for everyone to remember us by.”
“Please don’t tell me you were going to do a jack-in-the-box at your funerals,” Imelda says, horrified, and they blink and exchange a shifty look. “That’s traumatizing!”
Their expressions say they think she’s no fun.
After the twins, it goes without saying that the next person they expect to join them around the worktable is Julio.
His father, his brother Benito … longevity isn’t typically what kills people with their condition. Coco knew that when she married him, and Imelda always wondered if that’s why they limited themselves to two children.
So she isn’t surprised — heavy-hearted, but not surprised — when a few years after that, she comes down from checking the sign and sees a uniformed woman from the Department of Family Reunions speaking with her brothers at the gate (this was before the Rivera household installed a telephone, and Family Reunions still sent out representatives in person.)
Even as she comes up behind them, she’s already rearranging plans — the shop will be closed for the new arrival celebrations, and everything’s already been customized for Julio’s needs but they still need to implement some last-minute accommodations — and then Óscar and Felipe turn to her, their glass eyeballs seemingly sunk straight back into their heads.
Every thought wraps itself up and shreds.
“What is it?” Imelda asks, dry-mouthed.
“New arrival,” her brother Felipe says, in a wooden voice.
New arrivals are always announced by their relation to the head of household, so this would be Imelda’s granddaughter.
“— age thirty-eight.”
“What.” Imelda’s voice is faint.
“Victoria,” says Óscar, horribly.
They say that on the day Benito Juárez died, the sky itself collapsed and buried its head in Mexico’s lap, that’s how heavy the grief was. That the greatest composers put their pens to their papers for their country’s most revered son and found they could not write a single word, that when it came time for the eulogy there was only the start of a sentence, scratched out, because that’s what a loss like that does.
It takes everything.
The first few nights, Victoria sleeps in the main room with Pepita standing guard right outside the door.
You can’t approach her without warning. Dislocating your bones is easy if you’re frightened enough, and Imelda gets down on her hands and knees to help Victoria put her ribs and fingers back in the correct positions. Pepita paces restlessly in the courtyard, punctuating Victoria’s helpless “I hate this, I hate this,” with snarls of her own.
“How could this have happened?” she asks, turning her head and only remembering to move her glass eyeballs a beat too late. “Why me?”
“I don’t know,” Imelda responds.
Victoria has always been the smartest, most self-possessed family member she has. To see her reduced to this is infuriating.
Two weeks later, she leaves the shop and stays out late. The policia call Imelda to the station after midnight. When she arrives, she finds Victoria has been arrested for throwing bricks through the windows of the churches in the Porfiriato blocks 4D through 4eF.
“I was trying to get God to come down and answer me,” she mutters in mutinous response to Imelda’s expression. “I deserve an answer.”
“I will handle this, thank you,” Imelda says, aware of the officers listening.
“There’s programs you can join —“ one of them begins, and flounders when both Imelda and Victoria cut him down with a look, before setting his jaw. He presses, “It’s just — you’re not alone in this, señorita, you’re not.”
It’s a story as old as Cain and Abel. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard.
Another two weeks after that, when Imelda and the twins have taken down the “CLOSED FOR NEW ARRIVAL” sign and business briskly returns to normal, despite the yellow-eyed presence of Pepita stalking the perimeter, the four of them sit together around the table. Several paper forms ring Victoria in a loose semi-circle.
“What happens to the people who don’t know?” she asks, looking up. “What if you were hit from behind, or — or poison was snuck into your food?”
Imelda glances at Óscar and Felipe.
Once, a long time ago, she smashed a man’s skull in and the lousy musician sat on top of him until he stopped moving. That’s followed Imelda all her life, and into death, too. She doesn’t know if she’s the person who should be giving Victoria advice.
“The alebrijes know,” she says, and out in the courtyard, Pepita rumbles audibly. “They won’t let you meet without knowing.”
“Alebrije testimony stands as evidence in court,” Felipe adds.
“It’s that reliable,” Óscar confirms.
Victoria looks down at the form in front of her. She pushes her spectacles further up the bump where her nose had been, and lifts her pen. A beat, and then the words car accident disappear under a line of ink.
Imelda, Óscar, and Felipe are all silent. In the scribbled-out space next to “cause of death,” Victoria writes in tall letters.
“So what now?” she asks. “Do I just … wait for him to die? Do I have to wait that long to get any justice?”
“We only cross back to the Land of the Living one night a year,” Imelda tells her, fitting shoe leather over the dummy and tugging it snug. She turns it this way and that, checking for lumps. Then her head comes up. “But that,” she says repressively. “Is a time for family, not for justice.”
“You can’t haunt, not really,” says Óscar.
“Although …” says Felipe.
“No,” says Imelda, and the twins mutter something that sounds suspiciously like “make his walls bleed.”
“I just wait?” Victoria repeats. “That’s not fair! He owes me the rest of my life.”
“When he gets here, if you want to claim his light —“
“— she’d have to wait, though, that’s the problem —“
“— no, you’re right, I see, he’d get to live his whole life without any consequences —“
“— but what if he elects to become a faceless? It’s an appealing option for some, you know, to avoid having to pay your dues —“
“You could go to law school,” Imelda says suddenly. “You could make it your job to know.”
For a long moment, nobody says anything.
“It’s free here,” she continues, looking from one to the other. “Secondary school. Trade school. University. You always wanted to go,” but there hadn’t been enough money, not when the best schools were hours away. Oaxaca wasn’t the wealthiest state and there just hadn’t been many options.
In Imelda’s day, the only affordable way to pursue an education was to become a nun. She always figured Bernice’s objection to being pursued hadn’t been to de la Cruz himself (although it wouldn’t have been fair to her, as he hadn’t yet realized that he wasn’t interested in women,) but rather that she was much more interested in the independence.
Imelda and Rosita sat down with the finances on two separate occasions, trying to see if there was some way they could squeeze the funds from somewhere, but Imelda died before she saw any of that planning come to fruition.
“All right,” says Victoria, curtly. “Fine.”
In the week before Día de los Muertos, celebrations are in full swing across the Land of the Dead — the buzzing awareness of an approaching holiday makes everyone high-spirited and disinclined to work.
Imelda wouldn’t know how to stop working even if she had written instructions, but nonetheless, she spends the Day for the Unborn quietly, with only her brothers for company. Late in the afternoon, Gabriel brings her freshly-bundled cinnamon sticks that she happily stores in the pantry — he lives in a colorful sector of skyscraper gone near-diagonal with new construction, and shares wall space with a woman who peels and rolls the bark herself.
“You look very handsome today,” she remarks, stepping back to get a better look.
He does. That’s a sharp three-piece suit, silver pocketwatch chain glinting at his breast pocket. His shoes, of course, are Rivera-made, and his hairpiece has been neatly-oiled, smoothed back just so. He’d turn heads on the trolley platform, like that.
His hat is the tall, ten-gallon variety that Madre Emmanuela had been so disparaging of, saying, we might as well start adding church steeples to those hats if men are going to make them any taller, but had been such an indicator of quality among the vaqueros as to who had the finer hat. He presses it humbly to his chest and says, “I have box seats at the horse race. I wanted to look nice.”
Imelda’s eyebrows vault up. “Box seats! How did you manage that!”
“There are two seats,” he offers, and the picture comes together suddenly. “Comadre. If you were willing. I could use your professional opinion — on where I should place my bets.”
Her eyebrows cannot climb any higher, but they make a valiant attempt. She may be decades out of practice, but she knows a euphemism when she hears one.
“Is that so?” She can hear the laughter in her voice.
He grins back. His own eyebrows make shapes at her. It’s on offer, they’re saying, trying hard to be casual about it.
There’s a moment where she lets herself imagine it — to be seduced by Gabriel again.
It had been welcome enough the first time, when the shop was still new and she was only one unexpected financial expense away from disaster. It wasn’t lasting (because how could it be,) but it was comfortable, and a comfort, and it might be worth revisiting now that they’re dead. This isn’t small town southern Mexico. There’s no hateful third eye watching them anymore.
Imelda had gone looking, not long after she arrived — Julio’s parents, Soledad, and Gabriel had been the four people she was most interested in reconnecting with in the afterlife, the ones whom she had been grieving for long enough. While her inquiries at the Library of Records yielded up addresses for los Esposito and Soledad, it came back with only an error for her last request: Gabriel (whose birth name Imelda read and then immediately dumped out of her brain, like reading “Puerto Mexico” on a document and knowing what it really meant was “Coatzacoalcos” — the name was just what somebody who didn’t know it tried to call it for awhile,) did not want to be found by anyone he’d known in life, and no exceptions had been listed.
So Imelda set up shop, and made it easy to find, and waited for Gabriel to come to her.
He’s comfortable with himself — no one uses the wrong endings anymore, as gender in the Land of the Dead is only a costume, not a fight — and maybe, if it were any other day than this, she might have let him try.
She extends her arms, glancing down at herself. She’s still in her work apron, scuff marks on her dress and dye in between her knucklebones. Next to him in his suit, she looks rough. It’d take time for her to clean up.
“— and I should have given you more warning than that,” Gabriel finishes, correctly interpreting the gesture.
“I am no easy bet, Gabriel,” she says, as gently as possible.
He smiles. When he steps in close, she tilts her face to him so he can kiss her cheekbone. He is still Coco’s godfather, above all else. Between him, Óscar, and Felipe, her daughter never lacked for father figures if she wanted them, and Imelda will always love Gabriel for that.
“At least let me walk you back to the station, since you came all the way here,” she links her elbow through his.
They step outside into the sunshine, and he props his handsome hat atop his head.
“Also,” she adds, unable to help it, “don’t put all your money on the meanest horse, it doesn’t work like that,” and he laughs the rest of the way up the street.
Later, she’ll be glad she did, even if the events that follow will seem cursed.
Before the year is out, Gabriel will meet Yolande Ousmane, a new arrival with facial tattoos like tidal waves, and once he starts looking at her he never sees anyone else.
After leaving Gabriel to catch his trolley, Imelda meanders her way back through the bustling square. Her feet know their way home, so she allows the crowd to carry her along while her mind travels a million miles away. Gabriel couldn’t have known the significance of today. It wasn’t a grief she ever shared with him.
That might be the problem. It’s not uncommon for marriages from the Land of the Living to dissolve in the Land of the Dead — after all, all marriages are contracts based on need, and your needs change after death — and Imelda knows several people whose new spouses never knew them in the flesh. But if she was going to try it, she’d want somebody who’d know all those griefs so she doesn’t have to explain them, and that … is a tall order.
Fireworks fizz and pop from a stall nearby, and skeletal niños with their papier-mâché costume heads shout in delight and break into a sprint, holding their hissing sparklers aloft.
Imelda steps up onto the curb to get out of their way. It backs her right up against the storefront — and a sudden technicolor flash goes off.
She startles. A television sits on display right inside the window. The program is — no, wait, it’s a commercial.
There’s no warning.
The man in the commercial whirls around, and she looks right into Ernesto de la Cruz’s grinning skull face.
Like he knows, he winks at her. Entreating her to “remember me!”, he fades away under an unfurling banner advertising tickets on sale now, something something, this weekend only, she doesn’t care. Imelda’s whole body shudders once, twice. Entirely against her will, her mind hooks on it, plays that smug grin on loop inside her head.
Usually she can avoid him. But ambushes still happen.
”Ach,” she spits, pushing herself off and continuing on her way, but it’s too late. She’s been shoved off-balance, aware again, and can’t ignore the sounds of a commotion up ahead.
“— no, no,” a man’s voice is saying, loud and cajoling. “Armando. Kid, you don’t understand.”
Another man is trying to talk over him. “— did you get this?”
“I borrowed it from a friend! He gave me permission.”
It’s the kind of voice that carries. The foot traffic is slowing down to rubberneck. Not interested, Imelda tucks her elbows in and skirts around the outer edge of the crowd. The streetlights are coming on, illuminating the decorations that have been strung everywhere for the holiday.
Between the bodies, she catches a glimpse of an officer in blue, pad of paper in hand — Bridge Authority.
She frowns. What’s a crossing guard doing all the way out here?
“I find it hard to believe,” he’s saying, slowly. “That anyone gave you permission.”
“Ay yi yi, well, we’re good friends, see. Go back a looooong way.”
“— be that as it may, being found in possession of somebody else’s bones is a crime. Supposedly consensual or not. I swear to God,” he mutters, “it’s something new every time. How come it’s always you, every Día de los Muertos?”
A break between the bodies. Imelda peeks. Bone theft is serious, it’s —
She stops dead.
“That’s hurtful!” A hand pressed to the front of a jacket, the picture of indignation. “Sometimes I do crime at other times of the year! Allegedly. Allegedly do crime, that was not a confession, chamaco, don’t write that down.”
She puts her hand out, closing it around the bare humerus of the woman in front of her and firmly moving her to the side.
“— call me that. How old are you?”
“Old enough to have changed your father’s nappies, Armando.”
“It’s Officer —“
“Officer Armando, yes, sorry.”
“— Guiterrez to you, señor, and since I know for a fact you haven’t paid the fine from your last infraction, you definitely can’t pay the fine for this one.” He flips his notepad closed. “I’m sorry, but you’re under arrest.”
Someone knocks into her. She corrects her balance, scarcely noticing, and keeps pushing forward.
“Now that’s an overreaction! Arrest? All over Cheech’s femur? I told you, I’m borrowing it.”
“And you’ll get to tell me again, at the hearing.”
Just like that, there are no more people between her and —
The charro jacket would have once been a respectable burgundy suede, you can tell, but it’s threadbare now and sagging exhaustedly along its own seams. The cravat’s gone, replaced by a cheaper neckerchief, and the pants don’t match. He has no shoes on at all.
At some point, he was forced to kneel on the ground — and that would explain why she hadn’t seen him; he’d be a head above the crowd, otherwise — with his hands bound in front of him. They’re not the special kind of cuffs they use on Los Olvidados, who can pop their wrists out of socket and are really hard to keep in custody if they don’t want to be — so there’s that small dignity, at least.
Something peculiar is happening to Imelda, like she’s been tugged askew on her dummy so that none of her stitches line up correctly. She crosses her arms, pulls on herself, but it doesn’t work. She can’t straighten out.
Her mouth opens.
“That’s Héctor Rivera.”
It’s her voice. Her unmistakable accent. She doesn’t remember giving it permission to speak.
The charro jacket stiffens. The vertebrae in his neck hunch together.
Next she knows —
He’s scrambling to his feet.
“Hey, hey,” Officer Armando protests, slinging an arm around his chest and trying to hoist him back.
Héctor doesn’t even seem to notice, struggling ineffectually. His eyes are —
— and he —
It’s a sharp object, driven right through her. She flinches.
He cries out, “No!” and she flinches again. “Not you! It’s too soon!”
“It’s 1980,” she says flatly.
A beat. Then the tension in him snaps as fast as if she’d taken a pair of scissors to him, and all of his bones sag at once. Officer Armando grunts, shifting his grip.
“Begging your pardon, señora,” he pushes his cap back to get a better look at her. “But you are … ?”
She doesn’t mean to say it.
“His wife,” and then she sees what she hadn’t before: the single bone lying like a drumstick on the ground in front of them. She’s been dead for eleven years, long enough for the sight to make her stomach clench. It’s a memory of hanged men in a tree, brain matter on the ground in a border town in Michoacán. There aren’t a lot of ways you can physically hurt your fellow dead, but mutilation is one of them. “Estranged wife,” she emphasizes.
“It’s not what it looks like.” Neatly, Héctor pops his arm out of its socket, tucks his knees and rolls to the side, and pulls it towards him to snap it back in place. It leaves the handcuffs swinging ineffectually from the other wrist. (“Hey!” Officer Armando protests, louder.) “Imelda, I promise.”
He’s going to approach her, she realizes suddenly. In a moment, she’s going to have Héctor Rivera within arm’s reach again.
The heart she doesn’t have gives one heaving, jackrabbit kick.
She steps back. The crowd ripples in response, clearing space for her, but she barely registers them at all. She addresses the blue uniform. “You are arresting him on the basis of an overdue fine, are you not?”
Officer Armando responds to the command in her tone. “And for questioning about the matter of this femur, yes.”
For the third time, Imelda’s mouth opens without her permission.
“I will pay the fine,” she hears herself say, from a very long way off. “And I will come with you for questioning.”
It’s too quiet in the Department of Afterlife Affairs. She wishes for the bustle at Family Reunions, the trolley cars trundling straight through the heart of the building and the announcements running overhead, the shouting herds of families trying to keep track of each other. She could use the distraction. Here, there’s just the worn carpeting, and a lot of closed doors.
The painting hanging across from her is done in the tiered, pictograph style of an Aztec text. In it, La Malinche presents gifts of gold and turquoise to the last emperor of Tenochtitlán on behalf of the Spaniard Cortés. Like most women of her generation, Imelda was taught early on to hate La Malinche for being the weak, spineless woman who betrayed her people and aided Cortés in his conquest. Without her, the Aztecs might never have fallen. Mexico might never have become Spanish.
But the older she got, that distaste faded into something like admiration — how clever she must have been, this prisoner turned interpreter — and finally, into an exhausted sense of kinship. They did what they had to, the both of them.
She can’t get the smarmy look on de la Cruz’s face out of her head.
And the skeleton of her dead husband won’t stop talking.
“Is that grey hair?” he says to her. “Imelda, you’ve got grey hair, that’s marvelous! Look at that! And it looks so good, too, like a lightning bolt.”
It does? She frowns. She’d picked a hairpiece most similar to what she’d had when she died, although she might have gone with one that was silkier and easier to care for than her natural hair had been, but that’s between her and her mother’s heritage and she’ll confront it when she confronts it.
“— and I love your tattoos. Do they come from your mother’s side? Ow! Hey!”
He’s been cuffed again, this time with the heavy-duty ones meant for Los Olvidados; cumbersome, interlocking plates made to buckle over the bones and hold them in place so they can’t dislocate. It’s not a good look.
With difficulty, he shifts back on the bench and glares at Officer Armando.
“Armando! Honestly, what do you think I’m going to do, steal her femur?” he protests. “Can I not tell the woman I haven’t seen in sixty years that she’s beautiful? As beautiful as the first day I saw her.”
Imelda darts him a quick look, up and down.
“You could use some work,” she tells him.
Héctor’s mouth flinches up, then down, and a dozen expressions try to happen on his face at once. Then he nods to her, like, okay, that’s fair.
Down the hall, a door opens. Officer Armando stands, pulling Héctor up with him even before the voice calls from within, “Rivera for processing!”
Imelda stands, stealing one last look at La Malinche.
In their own way, her men had become representative of their whole generation, its good and its bad: Ernesto and Héctor, its possessive, seething ambition. Its wonder in each other. And Imelda — did what she had to do.
Once they’re inside the office, Armando catches the clerk up on the situation while they jot down Héctor’s height, cranial measures, and bone elasticity. (“— says he had permission, but he’s unable to give us the real name of the bone’s original owner or even a date of death.” “I’m telling you!” Héctor protests. “If you knew Cheech, that wouldn’t be weird at all. He’s a private guy.” “And yet, supposedly you’re such close friends?”) They line him up for a mugshot.
Standing by the window, Imelda gives into the temptation at last — lets herself get a good, hard look at him.
He shows teeth, asks them about their mothers’ health. Without his nose, none of the landmarks of his face make sense to her. She’s having trouble matching the bones in front of her to the skin she knew. Is this really the same man she’d once trusted their reputations, their hearts, their futures to?
Frustrated, she makes herself stop.
You’ll forgive her if she doesn’t remember everything.
She only knew Héctor for a few years when she was a young girl, after all.
(She’s not looking, and so she doesn’t see: it’s harder, of course, to tell the age of a person without their skin to give you clues, but there’s always something. Héctor’s bones are young. At twenty-one, she was world-weary, thought herself a responsible adult. At seventy-one, twenty-one looks like infancy.)
“Oh, wow, look!” Héctor cries.
“We’re not falling for that,” Armando sighs, but the clerk isn’t as skeptical and has already popped his head 180º to see what the commotion’s about. “Wow,” he echoes. “No really, look.”
Imelda follows the direction of his pointing finger.
And straightens up.
“That’s my alebrije,” she says.
The hulking silhouette lands on a neighboring rooftop. Pepita flips her wings shut along her back, settling in where she has a clear sightline to Imelda, who can just make out the gleam coming off her yellow eyes.
“Your — ?” Héctor gets manhandled into the chair in front of the desk.
Imelda takes the seat beside him without being asked, and he wriggles around to try and face her, his eyebrows hiked up, impressed.
“That’s your alebrije?” She nods, and he continues, “What are you el santo to?”
That’s personal, mind your own business, she almost says.
Except her mouth opens and makes the decision for her. “The creeping cloud forest,” she says. “The first look you get of it, stepping off the platform at the San Juan Albán station.” Home. “You?”
“I was — well, never mind what I was, it’s gone now. I’ve got a set of street lights in Mexico City all to myself, although I suppose today they’re having no luck. Cursed street for commuters.”
He shrugs, and shoots her a grin.
Behind the desk, the clerk’s having trouble separating triplicate paperwork. She wishes he would hurry up.
“How did you die?” Héctor asks, softer.
It’s an easy question, and it follows the small talk formula for the Land of the Dead — oh, is this your alebrije? What are you el santo to, do you know? How did you die? — but his eyes when he asks are sympathetic, almost tarnishing with all that kindness.
“Cancer, 1969,” Imelda answers.
That’s usually enough to make everyone nod, but once you tell a truth you have to keep telling it, and Imelda continues, “I didn’t want the treatment. The doctors — their clinics, how they spoke and dressed — all of it was alien to me. I didn’t trust them. I’m a highlander — if it hurt, we had our own healers for it. What could they possibly sell me out of a bottle that’s any better?”
Where do you think the medicine comes from, señora? the doctor had asked her, patiently. She could tell he’d ticked a box in his head that said “rural” like it was synonymous with “backwards,” and wanted nothing more than to tell Coco she wanted to go home now, treatment be damned. Three quarters of our most effective medicines started in the rainforests. OUR rainforests. The only reason we synthesized it in a lab is because it wasn’t ecologically sound to hunt those plants to extinction. But they’re the same ones your healers use. I’m not interested in disrespecting your traditions — we wouldn’t be here without them.
“It didn’t hurt, there towards the end,” she hears herself say. “I was too tired to hurt.”
“Yeah,” Héctor agrees quietly. And, “we’ve come a long way from trading cigarettes for love letters, haven’t we, Imelda?”
Imelda jerks back. “Don’t.”
The look on his face is glassine. She can see right through it.
It hits her, at once, that all of those lives she was viciously imagining for him, all the places she’d tried to put him and all the miseries she’d tried to give him — none of them were true. He never got to live any of them.
“You?” she presses, less sharply.
“I — “
He looks away, ducking his head, but before he can say anything (before he can lie, says a part of her heart, instinctively recognizing the movement,) the employee flips a page off the top of his stack and peers at it.
“Choked, didn’t you?” he says, startling her: she’d forgotten he was there. “I thought I read that. Oh, no, here it is, it was —“
“Food poisoning,” Héctor corrects, glumly. “Bad food, bad water. Something.”
For a moment, Imelda hears nothing except for the faintest buzz inside her skull, like the drone of an insect heard from across the courtyard, like the sound of music in somebody else’s home.
That can’t be right. Héctor, her Héctor, would never —
He would always hold them up if there wasn’t any clean water. He always picked at his food if it looked the slightest bit suspect. He wouldn’t just …
“I’m sorry,” she hears herself say, woodenly and from a long way away. “I know that was the thing you feared most.”
And if there’d been any doubt in her that they are whole lifetimes removed from the people they’d once been, the cynical little smile he gives her then would have cemented it. Cynicism was never one of Héctor’s habits — he left all that to Imelda and Ernesto.
Then it’s gone.
“Could be worse,” he tells her, with forced cheer. “At least I wasn’t a soldier.”
“Ay. I thought they’d be everywhere. I thought the Land of the Dead would be crawling with them.”
“Oh, that’s the war, señora,” the clerk points out helpfully. “Wars are always hard on us. Gives us too many new arrivals, all of them Young and Sudden. Gives us too many families unable to process the violence that just happened to them. And suddenly, chunks of us stop being able to cross over. People are dislocated by a war. They abandon their homes, and it’s hard to take family photographs with you when you’re fleeing the bad end of a gun. There’s nothing of us left to put on an ofrenda.”
Imelda folds her arms.
Neither she nor Héctor can look at each other.
“Yeah,” says Héctor finally. “We know.”
“Do you have family?” she asks afterwards, on the steps.
She knows the answer already. That necktie is a self-done knot. It looks nothing like the ones Héctor used to wear, the kind that always took an extra pair of hands to do. And there’d only been one name under the Rivera household crest when she died. She’d refused to add herself because she needed it to stay there by itself, lonely.
A few steps down, Héctor stops and turns towards her, giving himself a shake.
“Yeah!” he says brightly. “Of course I do. Primos everywhere.”
Because that’s Héctor: prone to exaggeration in all things.
Lying, she corrects herself, with a pang. He’s lying to you.
He lifts his hat, scrubs absent-mindedly at his hairpiece. “Suppose now I’ve got to go tell Cheech they’ve confiscated his femur.” He looks up, suddenly. “Hey, you remember Chicharrón? Wait, of course you do — you should come with me, Imelda! It — !”
And Imelda hurts.
She hurts, and hurts, and the thing about being dead is that you’re supposed to stop hurting.
“Don’t be stupid,” she lashes out. “Do you know how much money I just lost because of you?”
He snaps shut, like a trap.
“I can repay — “
“You will repay me.” She drags a look off of him, a head-to-toe scrape like striking a matchstick. He doesn’t even have shoes. “Since I doubt I will ever see that money again, you will pay your debt to me by never contacting me. You will not come near my household.”
“You made your choice, Héctor. You walked away from our home, and I spent my whole life cleaning up the mess it left.”
“I accept that,” Héctor says, so quickly it leaves Imelda feeling like she pitched off a step in the dark, an unpleasant jerk in the pit of her stomach. The Héctor she’s been fighting with in her head never gave in that easily.
He clasps his hands in front of him. “Imelda, please, when Coco arrives, can I —“
“No, absolutely not.”
For a second — just a second — something dark and wild and ugly flashes across Héctor’s face. Then it’s gone.
There’s an inkling in the back of Imelda’s mind that she’s not being fair. Would she be a better el santo if she let Coco decide for herself whether or not she wants to speak to her father?
She doesn’t know. The weight of a hundred arguments she never got to have with her husband weighs her tongue down.
“She lived a good life.” Her guts feel twisted up, caked-on like tar, and every word scrapes out of her tasting like it. She looks him in the eye. “As full as we could make it. What did you ever give her — besides shame and misery and — and absence. No, you won’t be welcome in our home. That’s your sentence, Héctor. Your consequence.”
She lifts her chin. Since he’s a couple steps down, his shoulders hunched up around his ears, this makes her taller, and she stares him down.
Apologize to me, she thinks at him. Say it. Say I’m sorry. You never said it, the night you left. I want to hear it.
But Héctor says —
He doesn’t argue. And Imelda walks past him, down the steps. She leaves him standing there.
It’s not the last time she sees him.
It’s not even the last time she bails him out of jail.
She’ll develop an instinct for it; they’ll be half-way across the bridge on their return trip, weighed down with food and suffused with the joy that can only come from spending time with someone you love, long parted from you, when a cold kind of insight will drip down her spine. So it won’t be a surprise at all, when the crossing guard stamps their reentry visas and says, “Ah, Señora Rivera? Department of Afterlife Affairs wants to see you,” and she’ll go see what her useless husband got arrested for this time; what he’s stolen or broken, what arcane law he tried to circumvent.
“There’s not even a box to tick for this,” the officer complains, and, “excuse me, señores, I need to get a different form.”
She steps outside. With a frustrated sigh, Imelda picks up the newspaper and buries herself in it, giving the pages a vigorous shake whenever Héctor looks in her direction. Fortunately, whatever happened this time has unsettled him and he doesn’t press, so she aggressively reads the same announcement three times over: los Monarrez would like to welcome a new arrival, their very first great-great-granddaughter, Isa, 87.
A different officer comes back in, scratching the end of the heart-shaped pit where his nose would be, squinting at the tab on his file.
“Rivera?” he checks.
They both straighten up. Imelda folds the paper.
His eyes sweep over them, taking in the tidy upkeep of Imelda’s hairpiece and uniform, her clean white bones, and then darting to Héctor’s … everything.
“You are the accused,” he says without hesitation, “and she is your household?”
“Yes,” says Imelda, simultaneous with Héctor’s, “No.”
They look at him. He looks at his hands.
“She’s not my household.” His voice is subdued, uncharacteristic, nothing like him at all. “I have no claim — she’s not anything of mine. The name is hers. She’s the one who built everything with it.”
Sometimes during these encounters — not often, but sometimes — there’s a disconnect between the Héctor she’s been arguing with in her head for half a century and the Héctor in front of her, a blurry double-image. She’ll always go for the throat of the one more familiar to her, the one she’s lived with longer, and squashes down the little voice saying, oh, you missed that, didn’t you miss that?
It’s meaningless, like a song stuck in her head, and she scowls, upset that he could remind her that she had once liked him for the things he said that she never saw coming.
“Right,” says the officer, and makes a note.
Outside, afterwards, they wait patiently for a gaggle of tourists to finish posing in front of the Afterlife Affairs rotunda so they can get to their respective platforms. She folds the slip authorizing the transfer from her account, tucking it into her apron.
Héctor puts his hands in his pockets.
“My friends think I am being idiotic,” she announces, apropos of nothing.
With effort, he blinks and focuses on her.
“The first time I came to help you, even the second — that was understandable, even admirable in a stupid, noble kind of way, just me being el santo. But this is the fourth time I’ve had to bail you out, Héctor. That’s not noble anymore, that’s just stupid.”
“I’m not responsible for what your friends think,” Héctor responds, tired.
He still sounds so detached. It’s annoying. Imelda wants to fire something at him to get him down on the ground with her.
“What are you trying to do, anyway?”
She’s never asked that question before.
It works: she practically sees the gears shift. He engages, at last.
“I’m trying to cross the bridge,” he tells her, turning to face her as they walk, “but I’ve never been put on an ofrenda, so I can’t.”
“I don’t believe that,” Imelda says instantly. “You have fans. They wouldn’t leave you off their altars, surely.”
“I only have one. We wrote ‘The Blessing Song’ together.”
He says it softly, and it’s shot straight into some terrible, deeply undefended part of her. Imelda puts her hand to it to keep it from bleeding and lashes out, crack-whip, “— and she will never put your photo on the ofrenda. You made sure of that.”
Héctor thins his eyes at her, reptilian.
A sudden, awful thought hits the hot surface of the comal inside her ribs and flares up like chilies in oil, hissing: had he been banking on the hope that, with Imelda dead, Coco would be free to put him on the ofrenda? And his grief at meeting her again hadn’t been for her, like she thought, but rather himself?
“I’m not coming for you again,” she warns him.
“I don’t care,” he says.
Imelda splutters, and wastes a stupid moment actually being indignant about it.
“What do you mean, you don’t care?” Like that isn’t exactly what she wanted.
“I don’t, I never asked you to step in and help,” and she throws her head back and barks an ugly laugh. What a blatant lie! When he was fifteen years old, Héctor Rivera begged for her help and he’s never gone back on it. “You just kept doing it, and I’m grateful, obviously. But I’d trade it all without hesitation. I just want to see Coco.”
They’re at the station now. The platform Imelda needs is down the stairs, but he doesn’t follow her when she steps in that direction and so she stops, too. They’re under the schedule board, and none of the commuters passing in either direction has a clue what’s happening, the tectonic shift she can feel under her feet.
She scoffs. “No. I told you, no.”
And this time, the expression on Héctor’s face turns at once cold, and clean, and instantly recognizable. It’s the exact same look she’s worn on her own face since 1921.
But then a trilling trumpet call sounds from the speakers, warning of an oncoming train, and he says, “Ah, this is me.”
He steps away from her, and bows.
“Good day to you, Don Consequela,” he says —
— and it goes through Imelda the way she imagines bullets might, like a granadero in a tank, like she’s another entry in that periodical: we were waiting for a train, and don’t you know that’s bad luck for Oaxacans, and you blew apart half my chest with a single shot.
Another forty years pass.
Usually they all make the crossing together, but this year the Riveras have a large commission with a deadline too close for comfort and Imelda wants the specific leather on hand before everything’s closed for the Día de los Muertos celebrations, so she takes Óscar and Felipe and goes to the docks while everyone else goes on ahead. It’s not a long errand, but it does mean they hit the bridge crossing at the height of the rush.
“Is it just me, or does it get worse every year?” Felipe muses. He brushes a petal off his elbow.
“More crowded,” Óscar agrees.
The man in front of them half-turns. He’s got feathers in his breastplate and a ring of sharp feline teeth strung across his forehead. “I do miss the good old days,” he offers, and snaps his gum, and Imelda gets the impression he remembers what the Land of the Dead was like before even the Catholics got a hold of it.
Felipe and Óscar go through the scanner ahead of her, and then it’s her turn —
— and there’s a dreadful, sudden buzz.
“Oh,” says the crossing guard, with some surprise. “Sorry, señora, but it looks like no one put up your photo this year.”
— and something awful happens inside Imelda’s stomach, something entirely without gravity.
She has no idea what her face must be doing, but the woman who’d been behind her in line steps forward to take her elbow, to steady her like she’s lost on a pitching sea. In confusion, she glances forward through the gate, but Óscar and Felipe are almost at the foot of the bridge, they must not have heard …
“You … “ she hears herself say, dragging her attention back to the scanner, that blasted machine. “No. You must be mistaken.”
“It happens to everyone eventually, señora,” says the woman supporting her, with a deep and terrible sympathy.
Imelda’s heart wraps itself up and strangles itself, neatly.
“Not to me,” she says.
Miguel Rivera, her great-great-grandson, looks up at her with such wide-eyed, abject horror that Imelda almost looks over her shoulder to see where the bogeyman is. Then, just as quick, he shuffles the expression to the side, kicking it out of sight like it was never there.
“Mamá Imelda!” he says, with a cringing little wave.
She puts her hands on her hips.
The worst part is that somehow, somehow, it … feels like a surprise, but not a shock.
She feels like she knew.
No — she feels like she should have known.
“It’s true, Imelda,” Héctor tells her, hat in hand and his head down, hangdog, and she believes him.
He never came to gloat. Ernesto. Not once, not in all the years they were alive, not in all the years they were dead, did he come to smirk that little mustached smirk of his and tell her, “I won.”
Because he never did. Héctor never chose him. Ernesto had to kill him because he wasn’t going to choose him — of course he did, to him that probably made perfect sense. From a young age, Ernesto de la Cruz had only a single dream, to ride into Mexico City as its conqueror, and while the details may have changed as he grew up, the core truth remained the same for him as it did for Obregón, for Carranza, for Díaz and long-ago Cortés: you don’t get to be a conqueror without ruining something.
But he couldn’t gloat, because he never won.
He never will.
“No,” says Ceci the dressmaker. “No, absolutely not. I cannot outfit eight more dancers in less than three hours. Not possible!”
“Ceci, Ceci …” Héctor tries, cajolingly, his hands to his heart. “You forget who you’re talking to! These are Riveras I’ve brought you — finest shoemakers in the Land of the Dead. They know their way around a needle.”
“Bah! That’s shoe leather, it’s hardly the same thing!” Ceci fires back, and then heaves in a deep breath to calm herself.
Her eyes fall on Miguel.
“She must really like you,” she says, meaning Frida. “If she’s vouching for you like this.”
“I want to make this right, señora,” Miguel tells her earnestly. “And to do that, I’m going to need all my family’s help, and yours, too.”
Ceci looks up and around at them all, the readiness on their faces. Behind her, a tinny rush of applause from her rabbit-eared wireless marks the start of a another radionovela segment, and something in her eyes goes flinty, determined. It is, Imelda thinks, remarkably like what Frida Kahlo’s expression did when Miguel explained the situation to her.
“Well, then,” she says. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Without stopping to discuss it, the Riveras divide themselves up. They pick stations according to their strengths, familiarize themselves with the tools, and begin their work. They know each other’s rhythms after decades of working together — even Miguel, because Miguel’s work had been his parents’ work had been their parents’ work. It’s their cohesion, moreso than any any technical competency with clothes or even the force of their determination, that will get them through this before deadline.
Imelda gives one last twist of her needle-nose pliers, then shakes out the harness and holds it up against the pelón dog. Dante puts his ears back.
“We’ll have to smuggle you in under somebody’s costume — if you’re coming, that is,” Imelda tells him, but Dante just slurps his tongue along his chops. Of course he’s coming. He’s an alebrije, and his journey’s not done.
She takes the harness to the rack, realizing too late that the Rivera there, shoving aside hangers, is Héctor.
He spots her at the same time, and bumps the rack in his haste to get out of her way.
“Sorry, sorry,” he says quickly.
As they pass, her hand moves of its own accord. It grabs him by the elbow, right above where the duct tape holds his radius together. She holds him there.
Out of the corner of her mouth, she says, “You will give him your blessing?”
And without hesitation, he answers, “I would have given it the second we met, if I’d known — if we’d known.”
But she shakes her head.
“It’s yours he wants most,” and to her horror, something in her voice goes small and bitter, cracking.
Héctor’s jaw gives an audible creak as he clenches it.
Then he says, “Imelda,” with urgency. “Do you remember, before we left San Juan Albán, why we were doing it? What made it so important to run away?”
“Óscar and Felipe —“ Imelda starts.
He nods, hard enough that his bones all bobble.
“Exactly. It would have killed them to stay. It would have killed you to stay. Your family would have crushed everything that made you you, and wouldn’t even realize they were doing it.”
Unbidden, Imelda thinks of Ines, the most forgettable woman you could ever meet, who spent so much time with horses that she started to resemble them — turned to a staturesque goddess in the Land of the Dead. Without her assistance in Plaza de la Cruz, stopping the Battle of the Bands, they wouldn’t have been able to get the word out about Miguel in time to catch him.
Stiltedly, she says, “You — are trying to tell me that — that what my uncle was to us, I am to Miguel.”
“You are not your uncle, Imelda,” Héctor says.
He does not, Imelda notices, tell her that she isn’t acting like him.
He peeks at her again. “Miguel. You love him?”
Her vision flares red.
“Of course I do,” she says on a sharply rising note. Ceci shoots them a disgruntled look.
“Then you’ll never be your uncle, just,” his voice drops, like he doesn’t mean to say it, “as I will never be my father.”
“But you do think he’s going to try to run away.”
He doesn’t meet her eyes, says to his bare feet, “Isn’t that how he wound up in that sinkhole with me?”
Imelda breathes around the impact, slow.
They stand there for another moment longer, joined at that single point of contact, while Imelda gets her face under control and Héctor steals little looks off of her, one after another.
Then, before she can stop him, he picks her hand up off his arm, kisses the back of it, and tells her brightly:
“We’ll need hats!”
“Hats,” Imelda echoes. “Wait, what.”
An hour later, as the segment of Ceci’s radionovela ends on a shocking cliffhanger and implores them to tune in after the holiday to find out what happens, Imelda frowns and lifts Miguel’s large flowered crown, setting it back further. It keeps slipping down over his forehead, and he squirms around as she attempts to fix it, simultaneously trying to get his own work done.
She pauses, enormous red rose in hand, and asks him, “Did you really believe your great-great-grandfather was Ernesto de la Cruz?”
Miguel, if possible, squirms harder.
“I don’t know!” he exclaims, pinwheeling a hand at her. “How was I supposed to know? We never talked about it.”
Let me guess, says another memory. It’s Sister Lupe this time, her sour fruit mouth puckered and turned down in disapproval. Let me guess, your family never told you anything, in the hopes that if you don’t know anything, you won’t try anything.
She wonders how this all would have gone, if she’d gone to Oaxaca City that year.
He shuffles his feet, and mumbles, “Sorry, Mamá Imelda. I put the clues together wrong.”
Imelda grabs the flower crown and holds it up high so she can plant a kiss on Miguel’s forehead — one, two, three, in quick succession.
“Not your fault,” she says gruffly, and drops the hat down again.
He scrubs at his forehead, but not with any real vigor, and Imelda studies his face, looking for a hint of that kneejerk fear that had overtaken him the first time he saw her — aware, at last, that her great-great-grandson had been scared of her. Probably all his life.
And there, waiting in the wings of her memory, is Gabriel, distorted by campfire and lifting his bottle in a toast.
May God grant you longevity, so that you may meet the thing that will change your mind.
Or your heart.
They’re the same thing, sometimes.
The thing she will never forgive Ernesto for —
— and in this, she even includes the fact he decided he liked his best friend’s guitar and his music more than he liked his best friend, and matter-of-factly killed the one he could live without —
— is that he forgot about Coco. His goddaughter. The most important person in Imelda’s life, in Héctor’s.
He never developed a sense of responsibility towards her.
He treated her with this sense of polite bafflement, like she was an instrument he’d let Héctor play with but now it was time for real work, so put it away, would you?
Growing up de la cruz, Ernesto had to wheedle away every bit of attention he ever got. It made no sense that Coco should get it just by existing. And the attention, effort, energy that Héctor and Imelda put into affirming Ernesto’s importance to them — now went into their daughter. She doesn’t think he was prepared for it.
He believed love was a finite thing. Experience told him that if you try to split something between more than one person, each portion gets smaller and smaller the more people there are.
By that logic, if Héctor and Imelda loved Coco, they must love him less. He felt that was something she took from him.
But love can’t be divided up.
It’s not a finite thing, it grows to fit whatever container it’s in.
Imelda rubs the scratchiness out of her eyes, watching Héctor stick pins in his mouth as he finishes hemming Julio’s skirt, and she thinks, it can even grow back from the deadest stump of itself.
“I’m sorry,” Julio’s saying, with chagrin, because he’s the last one done. Behind him, the twins keep adjusting the blooms on their hats and then squinting, trying to determine if the other somehow has the taller hat. “Everything I wear has to be specially adjusted for me.”
Héctor clucks his tongue, and says, “Don’t apologize — there!” He bites off the thread. “Now you’re perfect!”
(She’d forgotten that.)
Very — very broad. Shoulders you could plant like a fortress and they’d never be moved.
(She’d forgotten that, too.)
His facial tattoos are the same ones Miguel had drawn on himself.
(He wanted them to look related. Or, no. How could he know that you inherit your tattoos? Someone must have told him. Or — or drawn it on him themselves. Héctor. Of course. Oh, Héctor.)
Low-lidded smile. Now tarnishing, as one beat becomes two, becomes three, and Imelda cannot break her paralysis.
— horribly —
— recognition stirs in his eyes.
His shoulders come down. “Don’t I … know you … ?”
At the sound of his voice, everything in Imelda surges at once, going in every direction. A towering, colossal rage expands in her, in the same moment vicious, spitting hatred makes it all contract, becoming a cold pinpoint in the center of her stomach. The contradicting force makes her bones creak. Imelda’s bony lip curls up off her teeth, Pepita-like.
How dare — !
Doesn’t recognize her —
Like they hadn’t stood together in front of that altar in San Juan Albán, over that dead body in Michoacán, and vowed Héctor’s life was worth whatever it cost them.
Like he hadn’t called her crazy for spending all her money on that guitar, because it meant freedom, it meant independence — and he stole it.
Like he hadn’t held Coco up to his face and informed her, quite solemnly, that she was too ugly to be a sea serpent and so must be something else. A baby, perhaps?
Like he hadn’t murdered Jorge Guavarrez and kissed her afterwards.
Like she’d never watched him, helpless with feeling, pull Héctor into his arms on the other side of the campfire, holding him as Héctor tipped back and laughed, we cannot BOTH dance, my friend, who will play the music? and to whom Ernesto had replied, you can’t hear it? and took Héctor’s hand in his, pressing it under his jacket, against his heart. They’d stood there, as the expression on Héctor’s face slowly stilled and Ernesto said, it goes loco when you’re near, I don’t know how to stop it, and Imelda tried to find somewhere to look that wasn’t at them.
Like he hadn’t kissed her husband and when he was done slid his hand under her jaw and offered her to Héctor, too: kneejerk, automatic, the need to take a beautiful thing and share it with the person he loved most.
Like he doesn’t have that photo tucked into his pocket, right over his chest.
Nothing in Imelda’s life, or death, has ever been as satisfying as how Ernesto de la Cruz howls when she slams her boot into his face.
Lights, bright. Bright, too bright. Coliseum, crowd — people, poured all the way down the stands like fog on a mountainside, a blanket of faces, all turned towards her.
Heart. Pounding. Head. Static.
Miguel. Hers. Miguel, musician — wants to be. Dreams of it. Miguel, dreams, being a musician.
Miguel dreams of being a musician!
But that’s the thing about dreams, remember? At the heart of them, they’re all the same plea: don’t leave me here alone.
Don’t leave me here.
You’re not. You’re not alone, Miguel. I’m here. I’m a musician too.
She steps up. Cups her hand around the microphone. Reaches inside of her —
Oh, there you are, Imelda thinks, as if she’s done nothing more than misplace her keys, only to find them again in a completely reasonable place. Of course the song is still inside of her. Where else would it have gone?
Her voice, alone.
The people-cloud-mountain, silent.
The person you love most, there at the back of the crowd. Picture them listening to you, only them, and let the song sing you.
Coco. Of course it’s Coco — half-turned to check if she’s there, braids down her back, foot tapping impatiently on the cobblestones. Mamá, come out here. Come stand with me and count your blessings.
Please. Don’t leave me.
Don’t leave me here alone.
Notes on a guitar, like a hand on her back. I’ve got you.
It’s not fair, of course, that Imelda treats every relationship like it’s a violent moment waiting to happen, but her whole life has been an exercise in cutting people out, or having people torn from her.
She has no practice in letting people go.
It turns out the compulsion to cling, to cling desperately, is terrible, and futile, and terrible in its futility, and so, so unbearably human.
Héctor turns his head away from where Miguel had been, to where there’s nothing now but empty space, the stage door, and their whole family arranged helplessly around them. He looks towards the sunrise instead, and it starts in his eyes first: their sinking, a grainy run of gold starting to spill from the sockets.
“No,” says Imelda, and “no,” louder, as the outline of his bones come up in etching, marigold-colored.
She grabs him —
— his shoulders, his chest, then his face, cupping it between her hands, but —
— he crumbles.
Dust scatters off of him. The wind picks it up, blowing it towards the edge of the coliseum.
“Héctor, Héctor! Miguel!” tears itself from her throat, though of course Miguel is far beyond hearing her. “Don’t let her — no!”
Beneath her hands, Héctor’s shape gives one last great shudder, like it’s trying, but then even that rushes away and leaves nothing behind. Imelda lurches after him, but the dust of him goes spilling out into open space, and is gone.
Gone, and Imelda —
Imelda, who moments ago had both husband and great-great-grandson here with her, is left very much alone, and understands, all at once, what makes Los Olvidados fall apart. There’s nowhere else for this feeling to go.
She puts her forehead down against the cement and wails.
The sunlight touches her hair, the ends of her outstretched fingertips, and Imelda feels more than sees everyone flinch away from the sound she’s making; her brothers, her granddaughter, even Pepita and that little candy-colored dog.
But then —
A hand on her shoulder.
With a vicious jerk, Imelda rears her head to see just who in her family thinks they can comfort her — !
But it’s Julio. Of course it’s Julio.
Little Julio Esposito, who’d always cowed away from her except in the moments when it truly mattered.
“The worst is over,” he tells her, with an aching kindness that bends the shapes of his eyes, every part of him gone soft with sympathy. “And we were the best saints we could be.”
And he’s right.
So Imelda gets up. She reties the laces of her boots. She brushes off her skirts.
“The policia are here, they’re coming through the crowd,” Rosita warns them from the back, and then, “oh,” in surprise, because another figure beats them to it, suddenly coming through the curtain and almost knocking Rosita aside. Dante leaps up with a joyful bark, which the monkey alebrije on her shoulder responds to with a spitting hiss.
“I will speak to the authorities,” Frida Kahlo says, settling her alebrije on her other arm where he can ignore Dante with dignity.
Imelda and Julio exchange a look.
“Thank you, but … “ Imelda begins.
Frida’s mouth pulls, just a little. “There will be other opportunities for you to talk to them if you desire, I am sure. Right now, after the night you’ve had, you will all benefit from going home. I will deal with the policia in your stead. They won’t argue with me.”
Pepita rumbles, her exhaled breath wafting against the back of Imelda’s neck. Around her, her family shifts on their feet, but doesn’t move.
Frida reads their reluctance correctly.
“The story is as your hijo told me, is it not?” she presses, with a hint of impatience. “The bulk of it everyone saw, thanks to your clever trick with the cameras, so there will be no need to rehash that. As for the rest — your husband, the artist, created these works that inspire such devotion in the people who hear them, did he not? But he was murdered by our own de la Cruz, his art appropriated and distributed and reimagined until all that was left of all his love, his effort, his pain was little tacky bobble-heads and inaccurate designs sold on t-shirts in the supermercado?”
Frida fans her hand out, studying the knobbly bits of her knuckles.
“But I would know nothing of what that is like, hmm?” she says, and then looks directly at them, her eyebrow raised.
Imelda holds her gaze for one beat, then another.
“Gracias, señora,” she says, slowly.
Frida Kahlo smiles.
“De nada, my friend. Go home.”
Unbeknownst to them, the news has taken off, rushing outward from the coliseum and dashing across one bridge and then another, stringing itself along streetcar wires and climbing the twisting staircases to knock on the doors, to cup its hands over people’s ears and whisper.
Did you hear, did you hear —
— the Sunrise Spectacular —
— a living child —
— murdered him.
But it has not yet reached Rogelio Peña, who was ten years old when he put a soft fillet of fish in his mouth not knowing he was deathly allergic, and so has spent his whole afterlife as far away from the rivers and docks as he can, since the smell makes his throat tighten up in fear. There are many things he loves about the Land of the Dead (getting to stick things in his ribs when he needs his hands free for something is stellar and he wants everyone to try it,) but today he loves that his tiny room off the family block has a near-perfect view into Plaza de la Cruz, the music from the competition soaring up to him. He’s ten, and no purist, and really likes the versions of de la Cruz’s songs where the bass is boosted enough to make the dust jump — and he’s still imitating beat-boxing under his breath as he rubber-glues another ramp to the contraption he’s building for his mouse-shaped alebrijes.
One scuttles over his knuckles with a squeak, its whiskers tilted forward curiously, all the spines on its back lifted. Rogelio smiles, and sets the glue down.
“What do you think?” he asks, giving it a scritch under the chin.
He is soft, and happy, and creating something for the betterment of another denizen of his world. It’s not much, but it’s his, and if he did not make this small thing in the hope that it would bring joy to someone else, then who would? Who would?
So here he is.
Here he is, and he is el santo to the way the sunlight shines on the rooftops of Santa Cecilia, the way it heats the Spanish tiles on the bigger haciendas and the stones in the street, the way it checks itself in the reflection off the white marble tomb of Ernesto de la Cruz. He is the curious way it sneaks into a boy’s secret shrine under a tin sign, he is the soft patch it warms on the shoulders of an old woman who’s been parked in front of the marigolds, the photographs, the familiar child with the guitar.
She stirs, and opens her eyes, and the amount of sunlight is startling, and absolutely perfect, and it fills her up from the chest outwards, like it has a tune the same way Miguel’s music does, resonating within her, so that she is bones, and light, and song.
And she remembers.
The Department of Family Reunions does not call.
And so the Riveras wait.
They have no way of knowing what’s happening in the Land of the Living: all their information comes from what isn’t happening here. Coco yet lives, Miguel hasn’t been snapped back at the end of a broken promise (that reckless child, blurting a promise to Héctor with a marigold in hand, doesn’t he know what could have happened? Reckless child, brave, brave boy,) and as for the Riveras, there’s nothing for them to do but continue as if nothing had changed.
The days pass, and pass again.
They finish their commission, the one that had made Imelda late to the crossing that day. They take on new orders. They go, one at a time, to talk to the policia in the Department of Afterlife Affairs about the events of Día de Los Muertos. Imelda thinks about trying to find Héctor’s home in the slums of the nearly forgotten, on some half-formed impulse to go collect his things, but Los Olvidados have their own system of inheritance and her clean bones wouldn’t be welcome.
On the fifth day, after, she notices something strange.
Five days becomes ten days, and it occurs to her that no one’s going to offer her an explanation. She pauses inside the kitchen and puts her hands on her hips.
“Where are Óscar and Felipe going?” she demands.
At the stove, Julio and Rosita exchange looks out of the corners of their eyes. Julio finishes turning the vase of fresh flowers and leans back for his sister’s inspection, but she shakes her head, so he steps down and moves his footstool further along the counter.
“Óscar was just here a moment ago,” he offers blandly, climbing back up to try a different spot. “You saw him.”
“Felipe, too,” Rosita points out. “He’s already come for his breakfast.”
“One at a time,” Imelda responds, because this is the sticking point. “For days, it’s only been one at a time. When have they ever gone anywhere one at a time?”
Another sidelong look. In unison, they shrug. Julio says “here?” and Rosita says, “yes, that’s fine,” and Imelda rubs at her forehead.
When one of the twins comes in through the shop later that day, shoe repair kit slung over his shoulder and something wrapped in oilcloth under his arm, she intercepts.
“Ah,” says Felipe, jerking to a stop. “Imelda.”
He sounds as sheepish as Miguel. If she didn’t know before that something was up, she does now.
She folds her arms and stares him down.
(When he first arrived, Felipe Rivera had been el santo to the gap between a pair of front teeth in a boy herding sheep four miles out of Cuernavaca, through which he whistled to great effect. The sound took root in the birds preparing to migrate south into the Sierra Madres, in his sour old schoolteacher, in the army stationed at the pass into the city itself, the former stronghold of Emiliano Zapata. It lasted until the boy got shot clean through by jumpy local policia who saw him coming through the pass at dawn with his arms full of lamb and mistook him for cartel. Music, Imelda had said, like that’s that, and Felipe grimaced and waited to see what would be el santo to next.)
To his credit, he doesn’t even attempt to weasel out of it. Wordlessly, he takes the oilcloth and unwraps it. He extends it to her, and she peeks inside.
A single scapula lays at an angle in the cradle his palms make, together with two or three smaller bones she can’t identify. As she watches, they suddenly go marigold-bright and shiver at once, chiming soft and feeble.
Her eyes go wide. “Wha — ?”
“Come on,” Felipe says, folding the bones away again.
He takes her out through the back of the shop, down the winding staircase to the cellar, and when they stoop down to haul open the trapdoor, Óscar comes bustling into view to grab hold of the bottom of the ladder for them.
“Did you find it?” he calls up, and then his eyes go big behind his spectacles. “— Imelda!”
She opens her mouth, but he’s already extending a hand up to her.
“Good, come down,” he says, “you’ll want to see this.”
(Óscar Rivera is el santo to the wind in the plaza outside the clockmaker's museum in Zacatlán, the joy with which it stirs the bunting and the flowers that make a giant clock face, the precision with which it lifts the hair on the head of the little girl eating a caramel apple at the Feria de la Manzana. She pauses to shove it out of her eyes, swings her legs, and smiles.)
Felipe follows her down the ladder, and there, in the middle of the cellar floor, behind their barrels and spare racking, a partially complete skeleton lays out on a blanket. It’s like seeing roadkill: Imelda’s been dead for long enough now that she has no trouble recognizing there’s a person scrambled in front of her, in pieces. You get arrested for this. She knows, because she had to do some fast talking when it was Héctor “borrowing” bones. And now her own brothers —
Cursing, she steps back and bumps into Felipe.
It knocks the oilcloth out of his hands. The bones inside light up golden, shudder again, and then leap away before they hit the ground.
The shoulder blade snaps together with the arm bones waiting and shakes itself down, the smaller bones falling into places in the heel, the back. A disembodied hand nervously tugs a vest closer around a half-completed set of ribs. Imelda looks at the vest — purple — and then at the straw hat somebody’s left tossed on a shelf behind it.
“This can’t …”
She doesn’t know what she’s trying to say.
“He’s trying, Imelda,” one of the twins tells her.
The other adds, “They started turning up — the pieces. We weren’t sure what we needed to do. We went to the library.”
“And the Department of Family Reunions.”
“There’s precedent for everything if you’re dead for long enough.”
“Well. They had a pamphlet.”
“Nobody knows everything, but from what we know, there’s only two directions to go from here: on, or back.”
“So if our niece snatched him from the edge of being forgotten, and he didn’t want to go on …“
Her brothers set their hands on her shoulders, one on each side of her, same as they have always been.
“He’s coming back,” Óscar tells her gently.
“He’s trying to come home,” Felipe adds.
Slowly, Imelda gathers her skirts up and sinks to the ground next to the blanket. She reaches out, hesitates, then takes the nearest disembodied hand in her own. It startles, fingers splaying open around hers.
“And if he was mostly dust …” she finishes the train of thought. “He would have come back scattered everywhere.”
“If there’s anyone who could pull himself together from that …” Felipe offers.
The hand in hers must at last figure out what she is, because it grasps her fingers with abrupt intensity.
“What a mess,” Imelda says, low and with wonder.
A few days after that, a shout at the gate brings Imelda out to investigate, pocketing a chisel in the front of her apron, and she finds the skeleton of a little boy in a FIFA t-shirt standing outside the house. He peers at her doubtfully through the bars until she lifts the latch and opens the gate.
“We found this in our power lines,” he says without preamble, “is it yours?”
And holds up —
“Yes,” Imelda deadpans. “That’s ours.”
Héctor Rivera’s decapitated head offers her smile so broad it seems to be nothing but teeth. He probably thinks it’s winsome.
She sighs. “Let me get a bucket.”
“Nah, I gotta go,” the kid says, and shoves it at her. “Bye.”
“Good luck with the skateboarding, chico, you’ll do great!” Héctor calls after him, and Imelda tries not to drop him as his jaw jumps around in her hands. “And tell your idiot profe that you are older than him and if there’s anybody who knows what they’re talking about, it’s you!”
Imelda bumps the gate closed with her hip and carries the head towards the cellar, holding it out the way people hold pumpkins they’ve let get too soft, like at any moment he might start leaking on her shoes.
“I see you’ve recruited my brothers,” she remarks.
Héctor says, “I’ve missed them, they’re very clever.”
He’s got the rest of his skeleton on its feet ready to meet them by the time she gets down the ladder, and she can’t resist lobbing his head at him in an underhand toss. He catches it, almost fumbles it, pirouettes to keep his balance, and finally snaps it into place atop his spine. His whole body shudders, and he lets out a sigh of relief.
“I’m never losing that again,” he tells her fervently.
“Any of it.”
He starts testing his joints, and she takes the opportunity to give him a once-over.
His bones are still greyer than hers, but they’ve lost their weather-worn look, and there’s color in the designs on his cheeks that she doesn’t remember being there before. She picks up his hat and pulls a chair over, to sit and watch him move from that to counting bones. He still comes up a few pieces short.
“I wonder where this went,” he mutters, rotating his ankle and thumbing at an empty space at his heel.
“We’ve got some putty in the shop,” Imelda hears herself say. “We can use that until the piece makes it way back.”
He blinks at her in surprise.
“Oh, I — I’m not going — going to impose. I’ll be out of your hair soon. I just needed a place to collect myself and I wasn’t thinking clearly. I just —“
“Don’t be stupid.” Her voice goes strange and sharp, entirely without her permission, and Héctor’s jaw snaps shut. “Don’t you dare. You’re not going anywhere. You turned to dust in my hands, Héctor. I thought you were — I thought Coco had — “
And she can’t finish.
She blinks hard, staring fixedly at a point high along the wall, and after a long moment, hears the scrape-thump as Héctor pulls the remains of his body across the floor to her. He slips his hand around the back of her calf, and she squeezes her eyes shut, struggling to breathe. There’s a pause as he waits to see if she’ll kick him away, and then he presses his face against her knees; helpless, full of feeling.
He gets the room over the laundry, the one that the twins have been using to store projects they don’t want Imelda to know about — which she learns when she unlocks the door and almost gets her eyes pecked out by a mechanized bird left dangling carelessly on its string. She starts yelling, but, ever alert to impending disaster, her brothers have evaporated.
It’s a small room with a view of the wall of the neighboring building so uninspiring that Imelda wrinkles her nose at the reminder, but Héctor had been one of Los Olvidados before this and doesn’t even notice. He goes straight to the window and cranes his head against the glass to peer at the sky.
“Imelda, look how much light there is,” he says in astonishment.
“There’s no bureau in here yet, but we can take the one out of Soledad’s room,” Imelda tells him briskly, to cover up the sudden bumpy feeling in her chest. “She doesn’t usually stay long enough to need it, so she won’t mind you having it.”
He glances back. “Soledad … ?”
“Coco’s friend from childhood,” and she grabs the door on her way out, pausing to remind him, “the shop opens at eight,” before closing it behind her.
For the rest of the day, he stays out of her way, and turns up in the shop the next morning tugging self-consciously on the apron pulled on over his vest and suspenders. He hangs his hat inside the door, and hesitates.
A deliberate pause follows, as everyone looks to Imelda while trying to make it look like that’s not what they’re doing, and Imelda —
Doesn’t look up.
The ache in her teeth tells her she’s got her jaw clenched too hard, so she forces herself to relax, and says nothing. The scrape of her shears is overloud in the quiet.
“Psst,” and that’s Julio.
He jerks his chin, and Héctor slides along the wall to reach him. Julio’s stool on its rolling wheels is locked in its usual position at his station, but tracks weathered out of the wooden floor show where he’s got to push it over to reach the shelves Imelda was forced to install higher than she’d like.
“How’s your needlework?” he asks.
“Not … shabby,” Héctor whispers back, like they can’t all hear every word. “But I don’t know if …”
He trails off, and wiggles his fingers. He doesn’t know if they’ll hold together for fine embroidery, he means, and Imelda’s jaw goes back to its clench at the thought of explaining to a client that the crooked stitches in their slippers were because they’d trusted the work to someone nearly forgotten.
Julio hms thoughtfully.
“We’ll start you off with these,” he decides, pushing his stool back towards the cubbies. “And don’t worry, if it’s anything like the job you did on my Frida Kahlo costume, you’ll be fine.”
This time, there’s no way to stop Héctor’s smile.
This becomes the theme for the next several days. Imelda swings from forgetting about her husband entirely for long stretches of time to the sudden, ugly realization that he’s here, in her house, in her shop, which she’d sworn she would not tolerate. Her family remains tentative, Héctor keeps his head down, Imelda snaps indiscriminately at everyone.
You wanted him here, she reminds herself, trying to be stern.
Yes, I know, but now I actually HAVE him here! I didn’t think about that part!
She comes across Victoria and Julio standing under the archway while her arms are full and opens her mouth to ask for their help, but then she hears Victoria whisper, “do we know what the rules are anymore? What are we allowed to do?”
“Mija, I have no idea.” Julio’s eyes slide past her, and he suddenly fixes on a bright smile. “Mamá Imelda! Do you need help with that?”
“I do not,” Imelda says sharply, and turns on her heel.
Early one evening, as she’s passing by with scraps from the shop for the waste bin, she sees him sitting on the steps by the garden, and before she can decide whether or not to change course, Rosita slides in beside him.
“— invisible,” she’s saying, in response to something Héctor asked her. “Which could be easy to mistake for tolerance, except for how it’s still just a symptom of — oh, what’s the word for thinking women are unimportant. What? Oh. Yes, that. Being invisible doesn’t mean they let us live however we wanted, it wasn’t freedom. It meant they thought so little of us that the idea lesbians existed and had relationships that were as complex as men was laughable.”
Héctor’s silhouette tilts his head thoughtfully.
“I wouldn’t have minded a little invisibility,” he murmurs, and Imelda flashes at once to the memory of Jorge Guavarrez, saying meanly, he takes it like a wife, not a husband, simply because of how Héctor behaved. Nobody said it about Ernesto, so it wasn’t that they weren’t circumspect enough. People who wanted to be cruel found something to be cruel about, and Héctor kept smiling until they lost interest — or, in Jorge’s case, until Ernesto murdered them. “Although! I got all the invisibility I wanted in the end, and you’re right, it’s not as nice as it sounds.”
“I did not go through what you went through. Violence is violence. But erasure —“
“Is also violence, don’t sell it short.”
“Did you have a big wedding?”
“The biggest,” says Rosita immediately, and they put their heads together and giggle.
Another beat, and then Héctor asks, “Did you know? When you met her, did you know that — ?”
— that she was going to rearrange you, because that’s what love does.
Rosita tips her head back, looking out at the construction sprawl heading ever-upwards, all the new growths that had come and slotted the Riveras’ shoe shop into its place in history. Then she says, “Yes and no. Loving her took work. Making what we had into love took work, and patience, too. But when I first knew her, before we were anything at all, I … I looked at her and I wanted to love her. Does that make sense?”
“Of course it does,” says Héctor. “That’s exactly what marriage is. To look at someone and want to try — for them, towards them, because of them, for all of your days. It’s making the decision to try, again and again and again.”
A shift, and she looks at him.
“I know,” he says, quieter. Imelda, in shadow, feels herself grow stiller yet. “But I’ll meet her wherever she is. You know that, right?”
“Yes,” says Rosita. “We’ll help.”
She’s got a book in her lap, and with an air of finality, she transfers it to his.
“There,” she says, tucking her blossom of tithonia more firmly behind her ear — or where her ear had been. It’s a nervous tic of hers. “It’s everything we gathered off the ofrenda. We thought you’d want to see it.”
Imelda’s not close enough to see what’s in it, but as soon as Héctor lifts the front cover, Rosita turns away to give him privacy, busying herself by surveying the garden.
(Rosita Rivera Esposito is el santo to the rose gardens of Magdalena del Valle, paths and conservatory both, which had belonged to the church until they went commercial in 1983. Thirty years later, in 2013, a rose bouquet that had its beginning in those gardens was carried under the heart of a woman on her way to meet her bride, to become the first same-sex marriage performed in Oaxaca.)
Héctor inhales audibly and straightens up, like a marionette getting its strings pulled.
It’s a photo album, Imelda realizes.
It has to be. All those pictures of Coco they’ve taken on their visits to the Land of the Living, the ones Héctor’s never seen: he hasn’t laid eyes on his daughter since 1921, not until Miguel stole the census photo. He has no idea what she grew to be.
“Oh,” she hears him gasp. He lifts the album, traces the page with the tip of his finger, and says, simply, “There you are.”
Imelda jerks back.
After taking a moment to regain her balance, she takes the long way around the shop.
The man waiting for her inside the shop has a dog alebrije with a long orange lizard tail, which it keeps thumping excitedly against the floor whenever a scrap of leather comes too perilously close to the edge of a worktable. It watches, quivering with hopefulness, while the man on the bench folds his arms, bare metatarsals sticking out from the hems of his very fancy pants.
As she descends the steps, Imelda can tell at a glance what the problem is: the shoes he ordered sit beside him, and they’re too small.
Wordlessly, Rosita hands her the order form.
Ah, that would be why. Whoever took his measurements rounded them in the wrong direction, which would have snowballed until the finished pair was a whole half-size off what it needed to be. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the kind of error even Imelda’s made, although not on so expensive a commission and not in years and years and years.
She looks up, saying briskly, “Señor, I am owner and proprietor of this shop.”
His storm cloud had been physically palpable, but now he looks at her and just blinks, frowning perplexedly.
Imelda, who’d been expecting a lot more huffing and puffing, manages to expel him while he does nothing but watch her with that confused, put-off look: of course they’ll correct the error, of course it’ll be ready by then, you picked the Riveras for your business for a reason and the rest of it is in good craftsmanship, is it not, it’s just the size. Then he’s gone.
To herself, she grumbles about the cost — they can try to sell the incorrect pair, for novelty if nothing else, but this job will probably wind up being done el santo — and still isn’t thinking anything of it as she unfolds the form again, checking to see who filled the original order.
Moments later, she slams the door hard enough that everything jumps — even the pencil, which flinches at the force and then rolls off the counter in a bid to find somewhere to hide.
“Oh, dear,” says Rosita faintly.
When Imelda finds him, he’s on the roof with Pepita.
If she was thinking clearly, she’d recognize this as a warning sign: Victoria did the same thing when she was Young and Sudden, retreating from her family and the sight of her own skeletal face reflected in theirs. She let Pepita shelter her so she could rage and rage and rage, desperate to turn it back and undo it, struck all anew that she’s only here because of the catastrophic unfairness of another person.
But Imelda’s not thinking clearly.
“Héctor!” she snaps.
A scrabbling sound answers her. He snatches his hat from where he’d hung it on Pepita’s horns (she blinks at him, bemused,) and slams it on his hairpiece, craning out to see her.
“You are going to come help Julio and I with this order,” she calls to him. “Now.”
“It’s … rather late,” he points out.
With one good wrench, he pops his head off his shoulders and tucks it under his arm, so that when he steps off the roof it’s held securely in place, allowing him to maintain eye contact even as the rest of him goes pinballing everywhere and starts to methodically reassemble itself. Imelda lifts her foot so that some bit of wrist stops bumping her boot in its rush to rejoin the others.
“Is it a special commission?” he asks, once he’s been stacked back to the usual height.
She holds out the order form with his name on it. The sizing’s been corrected in Rosita’s red pen.
“We’re fixing your mistakes,” she tells him, with venom.
Héctor goes very still, aware now of the trap he’d walked into. He peeks first at the sheet, then at her, the way you do certain seismological phenomenon and all the years of force built up behind them. Imelda’s rage has nothing to do with the shoes, and everything to do with putting her livelihood anywhere near Héctor’s capacity to disappoint her. Again.
She watches him consider and discard several responses.
“That’s … going to happen, Imelda,” he settles on, finally, carefully. “I can’t promise it won’t. Is it fixable, at least?”
Imelda inhales sharply, but then finds that with nothing to crash against, her anger’s starting to drain away. A bad taste sits in her mouth.
“Of course it’s fixable,” she says shortly. And, “come on.”
When the customer returns for his shoes, now sized properly, Imelda sees to his fitting herself. He’s quiet throughout the whole process. Behind her, Óscar and Felipe keep up a cheerful stream of worktable chatter.
“— don’t see what nuns have to do with anything.”
“They can be scary!” Felipe insists.
Óscar twitches his mustache doubtfully.
“Don’t forget, it was a nun who ordered Obregón’s assassination!”
“The only reason a nun had to do it,” Imelda interjects, standing and brushing off her skirts. “Was because the priest missed. How’s that?”
“Perfect, of course,” the man answers, and wriggles his toes in their new leather to demonstrate, but he’s distracted. He’s watching Imelda, eyes very open, the same way his alebrije had watched the table like blinking would mean missing something spectacular. Imelda puts her hands on her hips.
A beat, and then he says, “It’s you, isn’t it. La Llorona from the Sunrise Spectacular.”
Imelda’s eyes go wide.
Movement in the shop bumbles to a halt. It’s only herself and the twins at this time of day, but she feels their attention sharp on her back.
Her first instinct, of course, is denial.
I am not a musician, she almost says.
But — that’s not fair to Miguel, who needed her to be one. It’s not fair that Héctor stood in the face of her fury and thought about promising her anything on the hope that she’d never have to again say, I spent years protecting my family from YOUR mistakes, then gave her honesty instead.
“That’s me,” is what she says.
Light sparks in his eyes. He surges to his feet and grabs her hand so he can shake it; vigorously, with several sharp tugs, like he wants to pull it off her wrist.
“I thought you were familiar!” he enthuses. “But I couldn’t figure where from. Señora, you have to know — they can’t stop talking about you. Would you ever consider coming back to sing again — a proper show, this time?”
Imelda’s non-existent insides make a valiant attempt at going in every direction.
“Not. Anytime soon,” is what she settles on, though clenched teeth.
“I am a shoemaker, señor, and the only reward I got for returning to the stage was to see de la Cruz hurtle my grandson off the side of his tower. I thought I’d seen my own flesh and blood killed in front of me.”
He blanches. Some of his excitement wanes.
Imelda thins her eyes. “It would not be el santo to ask that of me, or to send anyone else here to do the asking.”
“I wouldn’t — !” he starts, indignant, and then must at last read something in her expression, because he swallows his words and says, “Señora. Of course you’re right. When you’re ready and only when you’re ready. I understand.”
After he leaves, she checks the sala, and then the kitchen — which is dumb, she knows that as soon as she does it — and even the roof, before finding Pepita out back, lounging on the cobblestones with her tail flicking playfully. Julio stands by her head.
“— could,” he’s saying, in that immense, calm voice she’s only heard from a handful of times.
He sees her. He makes a gesture close to his body. Imelda stops.
(When Julio Esposito Rivera arrived in the Land of the Dead, he would ride the trolley cars simply to see the skull faces materialize out of the architecture, marveling that he got to participate in this, all this history. He is el santo to one particular stone that points upwards into the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, placed at the turning point in its trail so that the hands of every traveler find it without meaning to, using it to help haul themselves up around the curve. Children have climbed on it. Hikers have eaten lunch on it. Old women have leaned on it to catch their breath. Once, one young man tipped his chin down and murmured, “I would very much like to spend all of my life working alongside you,” and a woman who wasn’t quite as young and hadn’t considered this a possibility because of that, put her hand on the stone behind her to combat the precarious tipping feeling inside of her, and she said, “oh. Okay. I guess, if you want,” and they peeked at each other, shy and stunned and hopeful. It’s the kind of stone that, one hundred years ago, would have been covered in pictographs to help the travelers trying to avoid the main road, and the soldiers.)
“If you wanted to,” Julio continues, sturdily. “It’s yours to claim.”
“Mostly,” says Héctor’s voice, and it’s coming from … underneath Pepita. Imelda tilts her head.
Is that — oh, yes, there he is, pinned to the ground by her weight. Imelda knows from experience that no amount of marigold light is going to give you the strength to get Pepita off of you until she’s good and ready.
“You know what’s stupid?” The voice continues. “I caught myself feeling grateful the other day. Grateful! I got to meet my mother. I got to meet my siblings. And then I realized the only reason I did was because he — and then I was angry again. I don’t think I’ve stopped.
"It’s got layers and layers and layers to it, this anger. For every year of her life I missed, it’s another layer. For every event. Because of — !”
An inarticulate noise. Pepita shifts her chin on top of him and puffs up her chest like a bird sitting on a nest, rumbling.
Imelda recognizes it as a reassuring sound; Julio can’t quite suppress his flinch.
“— mostly — mostly I just want to stop being angry. That. That he. That I got. Because.”
Julio meets her eyes.
“You should talk to Victoria,” he suggests, quietly.
“I …” Héctor’s voice whistles, the beginning of another rage taken out at the knees. “I’ve … never really gotten the impression she wants to talk to me.”
“You don’t know her.”
“That’s true. All right, I will,” he decides. “I don’t want it. The fame,” and Imelda jolts, because that’s almost exactly what she’d just said to the customer in the shop. “I’ve worn his clothes enough. They’ve never fit. The only people I cared about knowing that truth are right here in this house. This is where I want to be. This is what I want to do.”
“All right,” Julio says, softer. His eyes crinkle in Imelda’s direction.
“Good,” Héctor says, with conviction.
A beat later: “Hey, do you think you could ask her to get off of me now?”
“I don’t know,” and there’s definitely a teasing note in Julio’s voice. He lifts his hands and starts to back away. “She doesn’t usually listen to me.”
“Hey — ! Hey, where are you going? Hey! Fine … fine. This is fine. Nice alebrije. I’ll just … stay here, then.”
She’s not stupid.
She knows what she’s doing. A moment of madness after a sleepless night and a terrifying stage performance was one thing, but as soon as she reestablished herself in her own home all the usual rules suddenly became relevant again. And that means keeping the musician out. Two contrary forces are acting on her.
That was the rule, the one that Imelda upheld with ferocious dedication, as did Elena after her. If you let music inside the house, it’d be no better than feeding rats.
They weren’t unreasonable about it, she thought — the property was their business, but what occurred outside their gates was beyond their power to control. The Riveras all developed deaf ears to the singing in church, to the radio playing inside the tobacconist’s, the television jingles and school anthems. It had nothing to do with them.
Trying to control every person they came across would, frankly, be a losing battle, but you could always control yourself.
But it’s the same rule that drove Miguel to break into a tomb and steal a different fate — a whole different family, if he could. And that … that …
If Héctor’s going to stay — and the alternative is unthinkable — then Imelda has a hundred years of habit to unlearn.
Her brothers are the first to break the stalemate.
“Do I even want to know?” Imelda scrapes her voice up and flicks it off.
“Go ahead!” Óscar goads her. “Step on it!”
She looks at him blankly. “Step on it?”
“It” is a small, squat, stationary toad, not dissimilar to any of the other little craft toys the twins make. It doesn’t wind up. It does have a distended, bulbous behind, but Imelda isn’t sure ...
“Go on!” Felipe polishes his spectacles and eagerly pops them back on his face.
Feeling dubious, Imelda poises her boot over the toad’s backside and slowly compresses it. Its mouth bulges open. She lifts her foot. As it re-inflates, it drags in a wheezing inhale that sounds like —
Her eyebrows vault up.
Óscar hoots triumphantly. “It works! It works!”
“Is it supposed to do that?” Julio complains. He and his sister, Imelda notices, have both ricocheted to the other side of the room purely on instinct. Victoria’s eyes are huge.
“We got the sound chip from a junk shop but we couldn’t test it beforehand,” says Felipe. “We didn’t know this would work!”
He nudges Imelda aside to step on the toad again. It gasps and croaks out a horrifically bastardized version of —
“What is that?” Victoria demands.
“I think it’s the national anthem,” Imelda replies. “It’s music, anyway.”
The twins throw her equally offended looks.
“This is like —“
“— the opposite of whatever —“
“— music is supposed to be,” they tell her. “This is music after it’s dead and buried.”
“Want to hear it again?”
“No,” Imelda says emphatically. She steps around the toad. “Get that thing out of here. If there’s going to be music around here it’s not going to be that.”
It’s lightning-quick, the look that passes between her brothers, and Imelda knows at once that they did that on purpose.
Three days later, they bring home a wireless radio.
“Don’t step on this,” they warn her, and she rolls her eyes, watching from across the room as they set it up. It’s clearly secondhand; its plastic casing is scuffed, the characters on it from a cartoon that had last been popular when Berto and the others were young. It’s a peculiar detail to focus on, but it’s either that or churn herself up with anxiety.
She darts a furtive look around.
Victoria looks faintly ill, but stubborn about it. If Julio turtle-ducked his head back any further, it’d disappear into his ribcage.
“We figured we could let it play in the background as we worked,” Felipe suggests to them. It’s making noise now, but only static. “Not loud, but …”
“It’ll be lovely,” Rosita says bracingly. “I’m excited to try it!”
Just then, Óscar’s questing dial finally hits something. They stand up very straight. Imelda —
Imelda knew her own reaction would be as visceral as it is immediate, but she’s not expecting the flood of — it’s almost like homesickness. Oh, how she missed it, the way a tune can catch you and carry you.
Although this one is a little …
They look over. It’s a gloomy morning, unable to decide if it wants to rain or not, and there hasn’t been a lot of traffic to the shop yet. Héctor’s got his head bent over several different spools of thread. Today’s paper had a satirical cartoon in it they hadn’t hid from him fast enough — Ding dong! New arrival: Ernesto de la Cruz’s career! — and he’s been subdued ever since.
“That’s a top 40 station,” he says to the threads. “They’re all right, but it might be easier if you — here, try —“
And he gives several numbers that must make sense to Óscar, because he squints at the dial and starts pushing it along. The incomprehensible music disappears into a burst of static, which swallows up two more brief snatches of sound, and then the familiar swelling sounds of a viola come up.
Óscar and Felipe’s shoulders come down, a silent kind of homecoming. They had the same upbringing she did, the same musical household. Their bones would recognize this sound even like this, even as gold dust.
“Oh, this is nice,” Rosita says appreciatively. “What’s it called?”
Gloria, Imelda almost says.
When she performed it on stage, there hadn’t been any viola, of course — just her men and their guitars, and her own voice rising to meet them. It’s as old as La Llorona, as Cielito Lindo.
And it’s too much.
“Well,” says Héctor, into the ringing silence she leaves by slamming the door behind her. “Perhaps not that.”
The radio stays.
“Don’t look at me, I’ve been out of the loop for decades!” Héctor tells the Riveras laughingly, every time they try to quiz him on what’s playing. “I don’t have any better idea who these people are than you do!” But he knows more musical theory than the rest of them combined — Victoria has to start from scratch, and Imelda should have anticipated how much the challenge of it would appeal to her.
She keeps her distance. Her family’s discovering something new, and her silence is the best thing she can give them.
“Mamá Imelda …” Julio starts.
It’s the same voice he’d been using with Héctor.
“I know,” she tries to head him off.
“Ayy.” He aims for sympathetic. “I really do think you’ll feel better about it if you talk to him.”
“I would rather pull my fingers apart and bury them,” Imelda says flatly.
“… okay,” he says.
A week or two after that not-discussion, she comes down from her room on her leisure day and spots Pepita sunning herself in the courtyard. Smiling, she changes course to go say hello, and nearly trips right over Héctor on the steps.
“Hey!” she complains, hopping to regain her balance. “What’s —“
And she stops. He’s hunched over, one hand fisted over his chest, and the expression on his face is — it’s —
Fear spikes through her. Like a trap, it opens its mouth and everything else she’d been feeling falls right into it. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
It is Coco?
She isn’t still — is it —
Héctor lifts his eyes to her. “They’re talking about me,” he says lowly, and with wonder. “Imelda, I can feel it. They’re talking about me in the Land of the Living and someone’s listening. It’s like — like a strum in my chest. I haven’t felt it in …”
He trails off. His hand flattens out over his sternum.
And — and after all her difficulty reconciling the duct-taped, barefoot bones in front of her with the boy she married one hundred years ago, and suddenly it’s the easiest thing in the world. Of course this is him. She’d once sat in a train compartment and drowsed against the window, feeling bruised in places where the costume she’d outgrown kept pinching her. He sat across from her, Coco’s arms around his neck and her face mashed into his cravat, sleepily drooling. Héctor held her like that the whole trip home, and the moonlight kept peeking at them just to make sure they were still there.
It’s one long moment, then another, before Imelda feels calm enough to speak.
“For me, it’s like getting stitched,” she offers, turning abruptly and dropping to sit on the step beside him. She gestures. “Being remembered. The neatness that’s two gaping sides coming together, like the essence of me is being attached to my bones.”
“I —“ With effort, he refocuses. “I can see that. I can —“
And then he double-takes, stopping mid-sentence.
Imelda’s dressed in sandals, a red skirt, with a cheerful little tote thrown over her shoulder.
“You’re going swimming,” he says, not a question, and then brightens. “Have you been to Tres Leches?”
“Have I what?”
“It’s a pool. It’s the best pool. Here,” he springs to his feet fast enough that his bones accordion together and have to be shaken back into place. “I’ll take you!”
Imelda gets to her feet more slowly. “I’m fine with my regular one, thank you,” she says.
But when she looks over her shoulder, she finds Julio planted like a particularly squat cactus in the doorway. He folds his arms and stares her down. It’s not subtle.
“… but trying new things is good for me,” she finishes, reluctantly.
Tres Leches turns out to be not three, but seven different swimming pools cut into the side of a skyscraper like steps in a spiral staircase, the waters from one cascading into the one below. As she watches, the colored underwater lights change, flooding the waters through in shades of blue and purple.
“I didn’t know this was here,” she says in surprise.
She’d always gone to the no-nonsense community center, one trolley stop down.
“It’s a great place,” Héctor tells her cheerfully. “Something for everyone!”
And he’s right. Up close, Imelda sees that there’s a shallow kiddy pool for the younger skeletons, a mock mountain spring, a good Olympian-sized pool for laps and another for synchronized swimming.
Héctor pops the top half of his body a full 180º on his hips so he can walk forwards while squinting at the clocktower.
“There … will be a lot of Los Olvidados around at this time of day,” he warns her, turning around front again. When she gives him a flat look — what, does he expect her to cringe? She’s married to one of them, she doesn’t have the luxury of looking down on them — he rubs the back of his neck. “It’s a nice place to just … be. Let something else carry the weight of our bones for a bit.”
She nods. Swimming had been an indulgence she allowed herself in her old age for that reason; when you’re weightless in the water, your body doesn’t ache as much from the strain of holding you up.
“I understand,” Imelda says. She sounds stiff even to her own ears, and Héctor’s smile turns rueful.
Inside, they find the employee renting out amphibian film. Having no webbing of their own anymore, skeletons need all the help they can get in the water.
Finishing with the customer ahead of them, he sees them coming and lights up.
“Chorizo! Is that you? It’s been awhile, amiga!” he calls, and then gets a closer look at Héctor, his clothes and facial hair. “Amigo,” he corrects.
Héctor agrees, “Yes, it has,” and plonks himself across the counter, grinning. “How have you been!”
“So-so. My parents joined me this year, so you can imagine what that’s been like.” He gives them a grimace, and Imelda adjusts her mental estimate on his age and arrival. “And you? You changed,” he remarks, like they’re talking about a new hat.
“Frida Kahlo suggested I try it for a decade or two.”
He surfaces with a pair of flippers and film and pushes them across the counter with a wondering shake of his head.
“And you still think she doesn’t like you,” he says, then turns to Imelda. “Señora, hola. May I have your measurements?”
Imelda knows the measurements for her feet the way she knows her own birthday, but she does need to turn her hands over. While she’s doing that, Héctor sidles over to the bench to put his film on, and the employee drops his voice and leans in, clearly a habitual gossip.
“I didn’t realize those cheekbones were real,” he whispers. “I thought for sure he’d had a lift.”
“Ay,” says Imelda noncommittally, realizing she doesn’t know Héctor well enough to say. His face had always been angular, but she’d liked that, once.
Just then, a large group comes out of the showers, their bones as grey as sidewalk cement. Someone spots Héctor and the shouting starts. “Primo Héctor!”
Héctor springs to his feet with a happy noise.
As soon as he collides with them, they break into excited chatter. Imelda, when she’s ready, smiles and tries to sidle by them, except Héctor materializes at her side.
“— and have you met my marvelous wife?”
“Mucho gusto,” Imelda says, very politely, but she doesn’t want to be dragged into the show and so she tells him, “I’m going to go swim.”
As she slips away, she hears one Los Olvidados say, sotto voice, “Yeek. How’d you wind up with La Malinche?”
“Isn’t it amazing? I still ask myself that all the time,” Héctor responds. He puts his hands to his heart and says, “she’s a highlander,” with such audible, deep, overwhelmed affection in his voice that Imelda, flustered, almost walks into the doorframe.
Her laps are a good distraction. The repetition drains her tension away steadily and surely, and the roar of the waterfalls from the level above into the pool below is more soothing than distracting. She might have to come back to Tres Leches — to try the other pools, if for no other reason.
When she hoists herself onto the ledge, tilting her torso this way and that so water doesn’t puddle in the joints and hollows of her bones, she checks for Héctor without meaning to. He’s nearby on the bleachers with another “cousin”, and they seem to be comparing how creatively they can dislocate their bones. Imelda knows that Héctor used to practice religiously — dashing himself into pieces and then quickly jigsawing himself back together, so as to better dodge the crossing guards on the marigold bridge. Even turning to dust and getting blown across the city didn’t slow him down.
The cousin’s popped his hands off his wrists, and as Imelda approaches, swim bag slung back over her shoulder, he gets them to do a jarabe with each other, spinning across the metal bench.
“— have come a long way!” Héctor cries, impressed. Then, “watch this.”
Before Imelda can stop him, he knocks his head, swallows his glass eyeballs, and then with one firm pound to his chest pinballs them back into his sockets.
“Dios mío,” Imelda complains. “That’s disgusting.”
“That’s amazing,” the cousin says fervently. “You win.”
Héctor beams at them both.
When they return their amphibian film to the rental booth, the employee smiles and nods, and as soon as Héctor’s back is turned, gets her attention. “Señora, someone’s warned you about that man, right?”
“I beg your pardon,” Imelda says blankly.
“He looks like fun, sure, but my friend, she does charity for Los Olvidados and she says he’s not worth keeping. He uses and uses and uses. I pity the thing he’s el santo to, it must be miserable.”
Imelda’s heard worse, Imelda’s said worse, but there’s a curl to his lipless mouth and with no warning whatsoever, Imelda is fiercely, roaringly protective.
“He is my husband,” she says, steely and cold. “And if anyone here is not being el santo, it’s you.”
She fumes the whole trolley ride back, answering Héctor’s questions monosyllabically until he stops asking. At their stop, they pass through the same square where, forty years ago, Imelda first saw Héctor trying to sweet-talk his way out of being arrested. It’s only a few weeks until Las Posadas begins, but more importantly, it’s a feast day, and everyone’s in the middle of setting up the bowers in the street.
Imelda’s got a lot of practice, but it’s hard to stay mad after she gets pulled into helping two smaller skeletons deliver their blessings to the saint. When she finds him again, Héctor’s deep in earnest discussion with a vendor.
“— shoemakers?” the man’s saying, dubiously. “That seems like an outrageous thing to spend money on.”
He’s got the broadest facial tattoos Imelda’s ever seen, bright red with only the whites showing around his eyes and his mouth like a luchadore’s mask. His stall seems to be nothing but posters, some in folders, some framed, some rolled up and sticking out of bins: famous Mexican landmarks, both in the living world and this one; but famous people, too, all skeletons. Stylized portraits of Zapata and La Adelita, reduced to a mustache and their bandoliers. Frida Kahlo’s eyebrow, next to a photograph of the artist herself in front of a self-portrait. Benito Juárez with his formidable tattoos, Alvaro Obregón whose missing arm had been restored with death, but who also had his skeletal self photographed with his sleeve pinned anyway, saying that anyone who thought a missing limb made you any less of a man had a fundamental misunderstanding of what it meant to be Mexican. Movie stars beam down at her. Some of them Imelda even recognizes: Infante, Negrete, Dolores del Rio.
She darts several quick, sidelong looks around the stall, not wanting to be caught searching outright. She doesn’t know what she’ll do if —
It takes several seconds to sink in. She’s not seeing that white charro suit, that enormous sombrero. Ernesto de la Cruz is not here.
Her shoulders come down.
He did this to himself. The eyewitnesses that had been at his party, they said de la Cruz spent most of the night showing Miguel off, his living great-great-grandson. He let everyone see Miguel’s dimpled cheek, his real eyeballs, his real tongue. His, he claimed, and proudly.
And then the whole underworld saw him throw that living child off the roof of his ivory tower.
Everything, everything you do in the Land of the Dead is for the betterment of the living. You are el santo — it is your sole responsibility. To harm a child, a living child — it was the single worst thing he could have possibly done. It went against every instinct. Ernesto de la Cruz had sealed his own tomb, just like that.
Héctor slings an arm around the vendor’s shoulders.
“Amigo,” he says, oblivious to the crashing in Imelda’s chest. “if you’re going to spend money on anything, spend it on your bedding and spend it on your shoes, because you’re going to spend your whole life — afterlife — in one or the other.”
He punctuates this with a friendly shake. The other arm bounces over their heads, busily rehanging the string of bulbs that had come loose.
“I like my shoes,” the vendor says stubbornly. “I like Sanborns, too.”
“Admirable.” Héctor had never lived to see a department store, not even the Sanborns in Mexico City with its famous soda fountain, but he was around when they first started appearing in the Land of the Dead. “I’m just saying, if you change your mind, that’s where you can find us!”
Imelda catches his eye then and gestures at him. Quick, before he thinks to do what she just did and check the posters. He snags his arm as he comes around the side of the stall, fitting it back into its socket.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” she asks, incredulous.
“What does? Oh, this?” Neatly, he pops his fingers off his wrist and juggles them around for a minute before letting them return to their proper places. “Not at all.”
“You do it all the time in the shop,” she says. It had been alarming, the first few times she’d been minding her own business only to have Héctor’s body parts go sailing overhead; usually an arm, snatching that dummy or type of fabric or once, memorably, a bat alebrije that had gotten in and was fluttering around in a panic; sometimes his head, for reasons she can’t fathom.
“It’s easy! You just need your right hand to remember what the left is doing.”
Oh, Imelda thinks. You’ve never had trouble with that.
Fortunately, self-preservation kicks in before that can come out of her mouth.
Héctor eyes her contemplatively. “Here, give me your hand.”
Squinting, she shifts her swim bag up on her shoulder and extends one in his direction.
He takes it and tugs on it. When that does nothing but jolt her off-balance — “sorry!” — he changes the angle and tries again. From there, he grips her shoulder as counterweight and attempts rotating it at her wrist, then her elbow, but —
“You’re right! You’re pretty firmly stuck.”
Amused, Imelda rotates her arm back. “Ay, I could have told you that.”
“You might be able to practice it, like I did. It’d be handy in the shop —“
She lifts her eyebrows, but he doesn’t seem to realize he’s made a pun. For one keen, piercing second, she wishes Coco were here.
“— just get loose!”
He shakes himself all over, showing how his bones accordion out and then snap back into place. She watches his ribs bobble recklessly about under his jacket, and when she looks at him, he spreads his hands, like, ta-da!
“I don’t think you could stand to get any looser,” she says to him dryly.
“Yeah, probably not,” he agrees, cheerfully enough.
Nearby, propped against a bowl of limes on an aguas frescas stand, a little battery-powered radio plays a commercial, and it distracts her from whatever Héctor says next.
She recognizes it; she’s heard it before. For an ad, it’s frustratingly catchy, one of the ones that will get stuck in her head and catch her when her guard’s down — and anyone who says something that small cannot become the biggest nuisance has never been trapped in a room with a mosquito. It’s the same kind of whine.
The stall’s vendor hefts a fresh container of tamarind juice up to join the others, its sides already starting to sweat as the ice sloshes about, and Imelda smiles at her, kneejerk. Other people’s music has nothing to do with her, so long as it never … crosses ...
She almost walks into Héctor’s back.
That’s the thing.
It could cross her threshold.
She could allow herself to hear it, to listen. An advertising jingle is harmless, surely?
They keep walking. Imelda grips the handle of her swim bag, then forces herself to relax, trying to be casual. With tremendous effort, she walks and hums. One bar. A pause to ease the aching in her chest. Another bar.
When she sneaks a look in that direction, Héctor’s beaming at her with every single tooth on display.
“It’s a silly thing to enjoy, I know,” she says defensively.
He shakes his head. “You like that one?”
“I said it was silly —“
“It’s for marshmallows.”
“I know. If you’re going to be an ass about it —“
“I wrote that jingle.”
“You did not,” she says immediately.
“Not that version, they updated it in the 90’s, but the original was mine. When I first arrived, that’s how I found work. I made all sorts of compositions.”
“That’s not fair,” Imelda complains, but he walks on ahead of her with a spring in his step.
“No take-backs!” he sing-songs to her.
“You like my music!”
“That’s not new. That’s always been true.”
He stops, darting her a look of wide-eyed surprise, and after a beat, she vents out an annoyed noise and pulls him out of the way of foot traffic. From where they’re standing at the railing looking out across the Land of the Dead, grinning skull faces appear in the gaps of sky between the skyscrapers — a few more yards in any direction and they’d be incomprehensible again. Surprises like these pop out of everywhere here. Architects being el santo, because they can, because it’s worth it for moments like this.
Héctor breathes deeply, and asks, “Does it ever catch you off guard?”
“Everything new. New and wonderful. The big things, of course, like television and computers —“
“— but all the little things, too.” He stretches his arms out. “There are words now for what we were, Imelda.”
She arches a doubtful eyebrow.
“Rock stars?” she guesses, deepening her voice into what she imagines a rock star would sound like, fumbling only slightly with the hand sign — she’s seen Soledad and her ilk perform it often enough — and he laughs outright. She continues, “Germophobes?”
And he says, “hey!” and then, “actually, that’s fair, but I want it on record that I was right.”
“You were,” Imelda admits.
“And you laughed at me.”
“You spent all that time being so thorough and careful and you still got sick more often than Ernesto and I —“ she does not falter over the name, and only the quick jackrabbit jerk of Héctor’s eyes in her direction acknowledges it at all. “— did.”
He sniffs at that, and says primly, “Correlation does not equal causation,” which is such a clear Victoria-ism that she smiles.
“Besides,” he adds, as they step back from the railing and continue up the boulevard together. “Epidemic death isn’t so special. Just ask any of our presidents. War and disease, corruption and cartel — they’re all complacent one way or another for half the deaths in here, I bet.” He pinwheels his hand, “But I’m off track.”
“Not really. Presidents. Germs.” She makes an equivocal gesture.
“Okay, now you’re just mocking me,” and Imelda laughs. “No, I was talking about words. Words that make it okay. Like homosexuality, for Rosita and Paula.” He pauses, and peeks at her sidelong, “… and bisexuality.”
Ah, she thinks.
She squints. “Does this have to do with your thing with skirts?”
“Oh,” says Héctor in some surprise, and then he must see the twinkle in her eye, because he grins back at her. “No, but I suppose there’s a word for that, too!”
A few streets later, as they step up onto the curb to let a woman selling ice cream cones out of jingling cart go by with her iguana alebrije draped over her shoulders, Imelda opens her mouth.
“Silent stillbirth,” she says.
Héctor, craning his neck to see which frozen cartoon characters you can get on a stick, blinks and looks back at her. “I beg your pardon?”
“Doesn’t sound very technical, does it? Identities are technical. Epidemic diseases are technical. But it’s different from a miscarriage, see, because of the development and all — all the usual signs of labor that go with it. We didn’t have any of those words. We just said I lost the baby, and then nobody ever talked about it with me again. Left me feeling like I was wrong — that I shouldn’t be grieving, because I had nothing to grieve for. So why couldn’t I stop thinking about it?”
She stops, and for a long moment, neither of them say anything. They stand there, Héctor with his hands behind his back, Imelda clutching fistfuls of her skirts. As soon as she realizes she’s doing it, she releases her grip, knuckles creaking.
“Bah!” she brushes it off. “You were trying to be funny, and I had to go and —“
“No, no!” Héctor blurts out, jolting around to face her. “No, Imelda, you were being serious! We were both being serious. It’s important to say it. To make it true. To make it be true.”
“To make it true,” she echoes, and levels him with a steady look. “Bisexual.”
Immediately, he returns, “She was our baby, you were her mother, you loved her,” with such certainty that Imelda releases a trembling breath, half a sob. “That doesn’t change.”
Due to the times she grew up in, there was so much Imelda never got to have: a proper education, choices as to where and how she lived, a music career, their first child. She made the best of it — there wasn’t anything else she could do — but sometimes in front of a mirror she’ll feel the chill at her back, all the ghosts of the women she could have been gathered behind her.
Ernesto and Héctor, too. Homosexual, bisexual. All those words Héctor got excited about didn’t exist when they were younger, alive; and just how badly it damages you, when the only words you’ve got for yourself are all synonymous with villainy, with unnatural weakness.
And it’s why the times need to change.
It’s why people need to change it, and they change the narrative by living it.
May you be granted longevity, so that you may meet the thing —
The rebounding door nearly gets Imelda right in the face, but she throws her arm out in time, slamming it back open again.
But Soledad’s already half-way across the courtyard, striding fast. Her motorbike will be parked in the shed next level up; there’s no access to the Rivera shop on it otherwise.
Imelda hikes her skirts up and gives chase, racing down the steps and across the cobblestones.
“Soledad! Mija, please —”
“No!” Soledad shrieks. “No, no, no!”
She glances back, spots Imelda gaining on her, and dodges through the gates. Imelda experiences a swoop of deja vu, of Miguel darting up the steps in the close, desperate to outrun her, and cuts through the side grating, recklessly kicking bins out of her way.
She intercepts Soledad on the staircase, nearly colliding with her and grabbing her by the back of her jacket.
Soledad swings on her, roughly yanking the leather back into place and her other hand out-flung, holding Imelda at bay. Her chest heaves.
“You — !” she spits, wild-eyed. “You! How could you do this!”
“Men don’t get second chances! We’re worth more than that — that’s what you said! And you just — like that meant nothing — like — !” She rakes her hands through her hair, mussing the turquoise and the pink, and throws Imelda a deeply betrayed look. “They were your rules!”
Imelda stares up at her. “I know that,” she says. Weakly.
But Soledad isn’t done with her.
“They were your rules, and Coco lived by them, to make you happy. Do you have any idea what she hid, what she kept in private, all those years?”
“Of course I do, I’m her mother —“
Soledad surges forward, flinging a finger into Imelda’s face.
“You have no idea!” she snarls, in a savage, unraveling kind of voice. “You squished her down so small and she allowed it because she loved you, and when I thought she couldn’t take the strain I helped her, and you just — take him back? He ruined it all, you can’t do that!”
“Mija, you don’t know the whole story,” Imelda tries.
“— dare you! How dare you! He has no place in our home! None!”
She drops her arms, and then arrests the movement, turning her hand up to stare at it. For a beat, she and Imelda look directly at the ring on her finger — Ines’s wedding band, the one Imelda gave her, that Soledad used to brazenly build her own narrative in a time when women were punished for thinking they had one at all.
For one truly terrible moment, Imelda thinks she’s going to rip it from her finger and throw it at her.
But then, with a wordless noise of frustration, Soledad clenches her hand into a fist and spins on her booted heel.
She sprints away, up the stairs.
Left behind, Imelda sags against the wall, and covers her face with her hands.
For almost forty years, Héctor Rivera was el santo to a family of birds in a place that yet remained unsettled and uninhabited, where the southernmost swath of tropics and the border into Guatemala became permeable.
Generation after generation, mother to mother, nest to nest, the strength of his marigold light kept their feathers fluffed, their eyes sharp, so they could keep warm and find the seeds and insects they would need to survive when other food became scarce. No less than four separate times, his birds inspired traveling artists to stop and paint them, and they appeared once in a nature documentary on public television. That’s the point of being el santo — so that the Land of the Living can be the best it can be.
Then, twenty-one miles to the northwest, a banana plantation got the go-ahead to expand after big business lobbied for it, and the industrial runoff got into the water. Héctor’s songbirds died off, the whole line of them.
Now he’s el santo to a set of streetlights in Mexico City, the root of frustration and misery to many morning commuters.
“Pretty sure it’s the same spot where I died,” he tells them, with no hint of irony. “With less horseshit, maybe.”
Victoria squints at him.
“They suffer because you contribute nothing,” she says accusingly. “You make nothing, bring nothing to your fellow dead. You neglect your duties.”
“That is … really not fair!”
She ticks an eyebrow at him. It’s the same flatly unimpressed expression she gave Elena the first time Coco and Julio presented her to her, like she’d been hoping for something more substantial out of a little sister, and it hasn’t really left her face since.
Behind them, Imelda closes her mouth. She’d been about to protest, too — whatever else he might be, Héctor has been nothing but kind and encouraging since he moved in. Imelda knows how difficult that can be to maintain; that counts towards el santo, surely.
“Okay, maybe I have the potential to do better,” Héctor admits. “Why do you think I’m here?”
“I thought you were here because you fell out of the sky and Tío Óscar and Tío Felipe were too fond of jigsaw puzzles to just leave you there.”
This time, she doesn’t school her fleeting smile into submission fast enough, and Héctor’s face breaks out radiantly in answer, a smile entirely disproportionate in size to hers and somehow its perfect compliment.
The speed with which the two of them formed their attachment surprises Imelda, although if she thinks about it, it really shouldn’t.
Victoria is Coco’s firstborn, his grandchild — she is the only Rivera in the Land of the Dead he’s related to by blood.
In exchange for her help and supervision in the shop, he teaches her how to read music. More importantly, he teaches her how to write it, and Imelda sees the way she stops sometimes when they’re out and about now, her head cocked and her eyes distant, listening to whatever’s playing from that storefront, or those portable speakers — or once, a music box. She writes them down on the backs of napkins, across the headers of receipts, and checks with Héctor when they get back to see if she identified the notes properly.
“Perfecto!” she hears him exclaim. “You’ve got this!”
“You really think so?”
Victoria seeking reassurance is uncharacteristic enough that Imelda pauses and backtracks.
“There’s no such thing as too late to start learning something new, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Héctor tells her confidently, handing the notepad back, “I mean, obviously,” and tugs on his apron to make a point. “So what if others got a head start in life? My friend Yun had been ding dong dead for decades before he ever picked up an instrument.”
And then, in the middle of this, he just blurts it right out. “I can’t wait to teach your mother.”
Everyone in the shop goes still.
Héctor’s eyes dart around. Quickly, he ducks his head, turning back to his station.
Behind his back, Victoria shoots Imelda a warning look.
What? Imelda tries to telegraph back, using only her eyebrows. She hasn’t forgotten what Soledad hurtled at her.
“I mean,” Héctor amends, when the silence in the shop becomes hard to ignore. “If she wants to.”
Imelda lifts her head. “It’s her heritage,” she hears herself say, a little too loud. “It’s never too late to reclaim your heritage.”
The tension in the room rushes out, all at once.
“She likes poetry best,” she continues, because once you tell a truth you have to keep telling it. “She had shelves of them back home, because I never had the heart to tell her that poetry is just music with the instruments taken out. And jokes — I hope you’re ready, because she’s got more jokes than you’ve got bones in your body, and that includes the ones you made out of putty.”
“Remember when she got us with that pun about the bumblebee?” Julio murmurs into the quiet. “I’m still mad. That was seventy years ago.”
“Julio thinks she should try the comedy shows when she gets here — both attending them and performing them. She would love to make people laugh. As many as possible, and that’s how she’d be el santo.”
It’s what she had loved most about Coco: that you could never predict what she was going to say next. It’s what she had loved most about Héctor, too, once, and if Imelda could pick any one thing she had hoped Coco would inherit from her father, it would have been that.
When she does find the courage to look at him, it’s her turn to be on the receiving end of that disproportionate smile.
Fortunately, before she has to do something awful about it, like acknowledge it, the bell at the front of the shop jangles and Rosita steps around her work table.
“Hello, yes, here for a pick-up.”
“Of course!” Rosita twinkles. “What’s the name?”
The man pokes his head in. His face tattoos are broad, luchadore-colored. It takes a moment to place him out of context; it’s the vendor from the square.
“Amigo!” Héctor recognizes him at the same time. “I’m so glad you decided to take my advice!”
“It was good advice,” the vendor admits, and doesn’t sound gracious about it. Imelda can relate.
After he’s paid and Rosita finishes boxing up the sturdy work shoes he commissioned, Héctor says, “oh!” like something only just occurred to him. “You’ll have to bring me back the guitar, next Día de Muertos.”
Rosita glances back as he crosses behind her to the shelves, and Imelda almost sees the words as they form, the but of course you’re coming with us, and then she catches herself, teeth clicking together. No, no, of course he won’t. They sent Miguel home without the photograph, and as far as anyone knows, no other photograph of Héctor exists. They might have saved him from a Final Death, but he won’t be able to cross to the Land of the Living with them.
“You want us to take the guitar?” Julio sounds anxious. “Isn’t that how Miguel wound up in trouble in the first place?”
“Yes,” Héctor says readily. “But the guitar is mine. It was a wedding gift to me from my beautiful wife.”
He beams at Imelda, who says, “ach,” with feeling.
“But no — there’s precedent,” he continues. “People have brought back swords and declared them as offerings, the ones left in museums, because they’d been named. My guitar is named, like a sword is. You should be able to take it even if it’s not on the ofrenda.”
Imelda opens her mouth, because she commissioned the guitar and the twins made it — it’s theirs if it’s anybody’s, but they aren’t currently in the shop to point this out — but a sudden thump from Victoria’s station stops her.
She’d bumped the table. Julio makes a fumbling sideways grab to keep her tools from sliding to the floor, and Victoria, oblivious, stares at them. “Oh, of course. Gloria.”
Hearing it said out loud makes Imelda’s heart jump in surprise. She controls her flinch; Gloria’s name, after all, has been in the family for years.
But Héctor — Héctor startles badly. The color drains right out of his tattoos.
“How did you — “
Victoria is already ahead of him, too busy solving a mystery that had never been explained to her. She snaps her fingers. “The photo on the ofrenda is of all four of you! Of course it is. You, Abuelita, Mamá, and Gloria.”
A silent stillbirth, too developed to be called a miscarriage, too underdeveloped to live outside the womb.
Even in modern times, the chances of her surviving would have been very, very slim — but there would have been a chance.
After, Héctor Rivera had said to his bride, what would you have named it if it had lived? and she told him, and so that’s what he named the guitar. From the very beginning, every note plucked on it resonated back to that decision, that love. That was the foundation they laid, around which they built their fame, their fortune, their whole livelihoods.
“Of course we can bring it back,” Victoria says, matter-of-fact, and looks to her father for confirmation. Julio nods. “Yes. That’s only fair.”
“But …” Héctor still looks wobbly. “But Elena didn’t know … how did … “
Julio takes pity on him. “Go get your photo album, Papá.”
So Héctor leaves the shop, and when he clatters back down the steps from the main house, he’s carrying the album of Coco’s photos in his arms. Óscar and Felipe trail in his wake, their faces keen and curious. Julio pulls his stool over and steps up, taking the album from him.
He flips through the pages, scratching his jawbone through the long tails of his mustache.
They gather around. The picture’s of Elena with her arms around three wet, squirming boys in swim trunks, all of them squinting against the sunshine and smiling; the oldest grudgingly adolescent about it, the youngest with tiny nubs for front teeth. There’s a pool in the background, faceless adults milling off to the side. There’s so much of Julio in Elena, Imelda thinks — not only in her squarish jaw and compact stature, but in her kind, crinkle-eyed smile, the way she looks when she has everyone she loves right there with her.
“Berto,” Julio points out his oldest grandson, “and Enrique,” the youngest, Miguel’s father. That poor boy never grew into his big nose, those ears you could carry a jug with. “And that,” his finger drifts over the middle child, naked shoulders squeezed between the others, “is Gloria.”
Héctor’s eyes widen. He flicks them up, then back down. The child in the picture is clearly a boy.
But — who decides that?
“Oh,” says Felipe, “right. What was — ?“
“— Marco,” Óscar answers before he can finish asking the question. “That was when we were still calling her Marco.”
“Well, why wouldn’t you? It wasn’t the right name.”
“She picked Gloria,” Julio says — gently, at the look on Héctor’s face. “For herself.”
“It was a song,” Héctor explains, his voice faint. “A very old song. The first time I heard Imelda sing, she was singing ‘Gloria’ as she sharpened knives in her courtyard. We wanted to — it was a good name, we thought, for a child. And then it became a good name for our guitar.”
Everyone looks to Imelda, who pretends to be very interested in adjusting the sewing bobbin inside its compartment.
Julio continues, “Coco was her confidant in the matter, and encouraged her. When she went to Mexico City to talk to the doctors, she asked Coco to go with her.”
“She’d known, I think, far earlier than the rest of us did,” Rosita adds. “She had me budgeting for it long before she would tell me why.”
Héctor sits down abruptly.
Imelda never got to meet her great-grandchildren, but she met Miguel, who squeezed himself between iron bars in his haste to escape her reach, who stood at the top of the steps and scrubbed the tears from his face and said, accusingly, That’s what families do. Support you.
Because there’s no seat at the table for discipline, for fortitude — not if love and acceptance aren’t right there with them.
The concession that Imelda made with her upstairs neighbor, who had no interest in denying themselves music for the Riveras’ comfort, allowed for a set of rain chains made of a handsome hammered brass hung from their gutters. Imelda can hear the tinkling they make before she even thinks to check out the window for rain. The drumming on the roof is muted; the marigolds along the top of the gate are being played by invisible fingers, leaves dipping with each raindrop’s impact like keys on an accordion.
Victoria’s in the kitchen making hot chocolate, stirring the rice on the stove until it thickens into a gruel. She arches an eyebrow at Imelda, who nods, and Victoria gets down a mug to pour her some.
“Have you seen Abuelito?” she asks.
“He’s avoiding you?”
She sighs and nods, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure that out: paperwork is spread out across the kitchen table, shuffled into stacks and flagged with little tabs, giving it a certain expectant air.
Imelda opens her mouth, but there’s a shout from outside, and running footsteps echoing down the outer staircase. She goes to the window just as a bizarre, three-legged figure bursts through the gate. A moment later, the image separates into two people, huddled under a man’s jacket.
Smiling, she goes out to greet them.
“Imelda!” A man stands under the awning with his wife, the both of them catching snatches of laughter — the giddy kind that you only seem to get from trying to outrun the rain. He brightens at the sight of her. “Comadre, you missed it, I swear that little cloudburst was waiting for us the second we stepped off the trolley.”
“Yes,” Yolande adds, holding onto him as she catches her breath, “but at least our feet are dry.”
“Of course they are,” Gabriel says loyally, “these boots are Rivera-made, we could ford the river Jordan and our toes would still be toasty warm. Oh, gracias, niño.”
This last is directed at Héctor, who materializes seemingly out of nowhere to take his jacket and shake the raindrops off of it.
Imelda, in the middle of being passed from husband to wife for an embrace, stiffens.
“You’re a young face,” Gabriel watches Héctor hang the jacket up, a paternal sort of smile playing around his mouth — until the look suddenly sharpens. “Have I see you around before?”
“You have,” Héctor answers, not without irony. “But it’s been a hundred years.”
Gabriel takes an abrupt step backwards, almost unbalancing at the edge of the porch. Imelda snatches him before he knocks himself right back out into the rain. His eyes jackrabbit, taking Héctor in from his bare feet to his duct-taped bones to his straw hat.
“… Héctor?” he whispers, colorless with shock.
Héctor flashes him a smile. “You look good — that’s a handsome mustache.”
Eyes bugging, he whirls on Imelda.
“It’s been an interesting Día de Muertos, compadre,” she says blithely. “Would you like to come inside? Victoria just made hot chocolate.”
She ushers them through the archway into the interior of the main house.
“I’m sorry —“ Yolande starts, glancing between them. “But I don’t quite — ?”
“Héctor, this is my wife, Yolande Ousmane,” Gabriel speaks up before either Héctor or Imelda get a chance. “My love, this is Héctor Rivera, he’s Imelda’s ex-husband —“
“Not my ex,” Imelda interjects. “Still my husband. I haven’t divorced him.”
Imelda’s gut tightens with annoyance. She had been saving that reminder, thank you — for in case she ever needed to hurt Héctor quickly, and badly. She’s not proud of that, but it wasn’t Gabriel’s moment to take!
“Ah.” Yolande’s expression pulls inward, becoming strained.
And that’s really a shame, because Imelda is unreservedly fond of her. She emigrated out of the same part of Africa that Imelda’s mother did, had recognized her own habits in Imelda immediately — back in her mother’s day, it was all just referred to as French West Africa, but Yolande, who came to Mexico as a young woman in the 50’s, tells her that they’re all independent countries now, and they want to reclaim the people they lost. Was her mother Senegalese? Mauritanian? Flores isn’t an African name, so she must have taken the church’s name, the way orphans did back then, right? Imelda couldn’t tell her — her mother never talked about it. Was never allowed to talk about it.
“Afromexicano” wasn’t a word that Imelda and her brothers had when they were alive, either.
“Tío Gabriel!” Victoria rises when they enter. “Tía! It’s good to see you — did you get caught in the rain? Here, let me get you some hot chocolate — you, sit down.”
This last is directed at Héctor, who’d grabbed a tray up off the counter and started busily arranging the mugs, spoons, cubes of chocolate and little cones of panela — as if they’d need more sweeteners, the way Victoria makes her cocoa. He makes a face at her, but relinquishes his position and settles at the table, despondently surveying the neat stacks of paperwork waiting for him.
“Gracias,” says Yolande when Victoria sets a mug down in front of her, wrapping her bony hands around it and pulling it in close, more out of habit than any real need to seek its warmth.
Gabriel tilts his head.
“I was going to wait and work myself around to asking you if you’d heard about Ernesto de la Cruz, but if he’s here, then I guess that’s my answer.” He thins his eyes at Héctor. “It’s true, then?”
“What’s true?” Héctor keeps his voice mild.
“He murdered you?”
“I thought he loved you.”
“No, it’s a fair question, Imelda.” Héctor’s face has gone very still. “I thought he did, too.”
But they’d all sung the same corridos. They knew the story. No one got to be famous, no one got to be the hero, not without some kind of painful sacrifice. You can only earn your happy ending by giving up something of equal importance, that’s how it works. And because Ernesto de la Cruz had sacrificed his nearest, his dearest friend, it gave him a twisted sense of permission.
“He confessed to it — killing me, taking my songs and claiming them as his own to make himself famous — in front of everyone. He worked hard to make sure that no one knew my name or remembered me.”
Gabriel’s expression doesn’t change, but a visible shudder runs through his wife. Being on this side of death and seeing the physical consequences makes you appreciate just how violent the act of erasing someone’s name from history is. Imelda takes the tray from Victoria and bustles back to the counter, so no one can see her face — after all, she’d done the same thing. His own grandchildren hadn’t known Héctor’s name, because she hadn’t let them.
She and Ernesto had always been on the same page, more often than not.
“He confessed,” Héctor says again. “Don’t you believe him?”
“No one’s letting us forget it. It’s all they want to talk about on TV.”
Héctor’s calm suddenly peels back; he sits up, curious.
“Wait. You have a television?” he asks. “No one from our generation has a television!”
“As it should be!” Imelda interjects, because this has been one of her biggest grievances with Gabriel for years, and she’ll take an ally when she can get him. “I’ve warned you about that thing! It’s got you trained to sit in front of it and not think — !”
“Surely if a devil was going to trick us and suck our souls out through our eyeballs, he would have done it by now?” Yolande speaks up.
Imelda gives her a half-hearted glare. She had a whole speech prepared, thank you!
“Were you there?” Gabriel’s looking to her now. “When all this happened?”
“Yes,” says Imelda, and, “blast, this bar of soap is done. I thought I had more under the sink — ?”
“It was you?”
There isn’t any more under the sink. “No, it was Victoria and Rosita. They tricked him into confessing on camera.”
“Clever girls!” Yolande exclaims, lifting her head to beam at Victoria, who’s settled in with Héctor and the paperwork with the steely-eyed determination of someone who’d gone to law school for this. She smiles back.
Gabriel jerks his chin in their direction. “And he’s here because — ?”
Because I met Miguel, and he changed my mind.
Because once, when a lice infestation drove the Zapotec women to shave every man and child bald, Ernesto had begged her not to. And so she’d pinned him between her knees and picked the nits out, one-by-one, so that he could keep his dignity. He repaid her by killing her husband and never even telling her that he’d died. It’s Pancho Villa’s chauvinism all over again: if you’ve got a choice between killing a man’s horse and killing his woman, kill the horse. It’s more valuable. So Ernesto stole the guitar and … never once looked back to see what became of the woman. Not important.
How fitting, then, that it was Victoria and Rosita — and Imelda and Frida Kahlo, too — who pulled the rug out from under him.
Gabriel gestures. “Why isn’t he out there, reclaiming all of that? Everyone wants to know the story, but they only keep going over the same bits again and again. If you want to set history straight, now’s the time.” His eyes are boring into the side of her head. “So why is he here, Imelda?”
Everyone knows Imelda Rivera, the shoemaker. They know what she’s like. But Óscar and Felipe remember her when she was Imelda, the farrier, and Gabriel — Gabriel remembers Imelda, the traveling musician. He’s one of the few people remaining who’s seen her, tucked under Héctor’s arm, tucked into Ernesto’s side, how much she had loved it and how much she missed it. He’s seen her salt that earth and till it over. She can feel the furnace of his protectiveness from the other side of the kitchen.
Oh, great. She’ll have to talk to him before he does something bull-headed.
“I’ll have to get some more soap from the back,” she says instead of answering, turning away from the sink.
“I’ll get it,” Gabriel says instantly, rising. “It’s still in the pantry, second shelf?”
“Yes, thank you,” says Imelda.
She steps back so he can maneuver around her, and isn’t expecting it at all —
He slips a hand around her waist, backs her up a step, and kisses her full on the mouth.
He’s there and gone again before she can even decide whether or not she wants to shove him away, or hit him, or — she hears his boots, Rivera-made, clomp away towards the back of the house. She stares after him, shocked, angry, with a roaring in her ears like she’s still got a heart to yammer at her. So much for fending off the bull-headed gesture!
Behind her, Héctor makes a faint, trod-upon noise. He looks at Yolande Ousmane, who blinks back at him with an equally gobsmacked expression.
Victoria looks at all three of them.
“No,” she decides, and rises and leaves the room.
“Go on, ask me.”
“It’s none of my business,” Héctor shifts away from her, sounding tired.
“And if you don’t ask, you’re going to drive yourself loco wondering.”
“How long was he your lover?”
It falls straight out, like it had been waiting behind the trapdoor of his teeth for her to pull the lever.
“Two years,” Imelda answers promptly.
“… that’s it?”
“Yes. Why, what were you imagining?”
“I guess I. I — I don’t know.”
All of this, rapid-fire.
He stares at her. His chest gives a single heave; the bending of his ribs is audible. She returns his look as placidly as she can.
“He came to live with us,” she starts, “after they bought up all the land to build the highway and put the ranch out of business. Stayed the whole summer.”
It was one of the few nice things she’d had during that time, just for herself. Coco had been preparing for First Communion then, and you need godparents for a thing like that, so even if Gabriel hadn’t come to her gate with his hat in his hands and said, “comadre, I had to sell my horse, I’ve nowhere else to go,” she would have found a way to invite him.
Informing Óscar and Felipe that Gabriel, a man they’d never met before, would be staying with them indefinitely had an unfortunate side effect. It made them remember, belatedly, that they were her older brothers. Woefully out of practice with the whole concept, they spent several days trying to loom protectively whenever Imelda and Gabriel were in a room together — married woman she might be, Imelda was only twenty-five, her husband was long gone and everyone knew it, and Gabriel was a young man of a certain lifestyle.
This, of course, lasted until they saw the modified elastic stocking that Gabriel occasionally wore to flatten his chest hanging with the rest of the laundry, and their clever brains put all the information into the right gears.
That’s more like it, she scolded them. I knew I raised you better than that!
She hadn’t set out to be seduced, or to do any seducing, but weeks became months and the switch Gabriel made, from standing at her door to joke with her after saying good-night to Coco to coming inside and shutting the door behind him, seemed nothing less than the natural progression of things.
He made her feel safe, at least for a little bit — that’s what it comes down to. With him, she could allow herself to be sheltered, and it had meant so much to Gabriel to think his arms could be a shelter for anybody. He never thought he would get the chance.
I didn’t imagine any other life outside of ranching, he told her once. I wasn’t prepared at all. But you — after everything fell down around you, you picked all the pieces up and you made them work.
I’m sorry about the ranch, she said, as he adjusted the pillow behind his head. But I am glad I decided not to leave all this and become a cowboy.
He hiked his eyebrows. You were going to be a cowboy?
I thought about it, when my husband left.
And if Héctor wanted a say, in that, in this, in anything, she’d thought, then he could show up and give her an earful.
She looks at him now, and ticks her eyebrows up expectantly. That was it. That was the only romance she’d had between him and now. If Héctor reacts poorly to this — well, Gabriel was Coco’s godfather for every major event in her life. Made Imelda watch him leave and always came back. It really would be a shame to have to kick Héctor out, if he’s an ass about it.
(She still doesn’t remember saying “love of my life,” but that’s what love does. It rearranges you. Héctor Rivera was the whole stupid love that every other love in her whole stupid life echoed back to.)
He just shakes his head at her, mystified. “I don’t know where you think I would have gotten the time.”
And it would be dismissive, the way he says it, if not for the expression Imelda sees in the instant before he kicks it out of sight.
She tilts her head, surprised. “You haven’t touched tattoos with anyone yet?”
And Imelda says, “That’s too bad. I haven’t either. I was hoping one of us would, so we’d know what we were doing.”
That had been their saving grace, the first time, when they were kids stealing time in the stables. That Héctor had done it before and kept saying, you can do that, you can do this, I don’t know what that’s like but let’s find out together.
He’s not blinking. She’s pretty sure he’s stopped breathing. His eyes are very wide.
The silence between them stretches.
She resumes her placid scrutiny, but there’s something happening — she’s aware of herself. Or, rather, she’s becoming increasingly aware of him. Him, physically, here in this room with her. She’s seventeen again, calculating exactly how casually she’d need to move before their knees touched.
If she wanted to, she could get up and cross the space. No subtlety about it, she could hike her skirts up and climb into his lap. He might not even stop her.
She could put her hands to his cheeks and tip his head up to her. Learn how different his skull face feels, since all she knows is the flesh. She misses that line of freckles down his neck, like ducklings trying to follow each other all in a row. She misses —
She could lean in. Line their tattoos up against each other. Without his nose, it’d be easy.
It’s not that she doesn’t know the theory. She’s seen it done once or twice.
The first time, she’d stopped in her tracks and Ines had to backtrack. What, she’d asked, what is it, and then she took her by the elbow and steered her away, laughing, don’t gawk!
And Imelda shook her head, trying to clear the image: the couple, intwined and profoundly oblivious to anything else, their tattoos lit up so bright it almost obscured them from sight — it’s the marigold glow that had stopped her, frightened someone was dying their final death alone in an alley.
Come on, prima, Ines pressed. It’s not for us. Even if we weren’t malquerida, it’s not for us.
But — people bump tattoos all the time, and THAT doesn’t happen. Is it — ?
It’s a whole sharing of self. That’s what it is.
Imelda had never tried it. Now she wishes she had — it would have been nice, to be the one doing the teaching this time.
Héctor works his mouth like a flounder, and stammers.
“D-do you want me to ... “ he tries, faintly. He gestures towards — somewhere. “I can go out and get the experience, if you want me to.”
“Don’t you dare!” Imelda flashes at him, and then is immediately horrified with herself.
The spell’s broken. She leans back, but it’s too late; Héctor’s already brightening, like she said something else entirely. Hissing like a goose, Imelda flounces to her feet and leaves, pretending she can’t feel him beaming at her back.
This time, when the policia come to the shop, they’re accompanied by a faceless in a suit with no shape and tacky department store shoes. You see them around: the kind of men and women who arrive in the Land of the Dead with no real desire to assume their living identities, who forego personalizing their bones in any way and wind up looking interchangeable with one another. She danced with a dozen of them on stage at the Sunrise Spectacular. They make good security guards. Good investigators. Good thugs.
They sit down with Héctor at the kitchen table — just a few more questions, señor, if you don’t mind.
Already looking exhausted, Héctor waves a go-ahead gesture at them. The faceless spots Imelda in the doorway and rises to his feet, coming over and shutting the door in her face.
Fury flares up in her, match-struck. How dare they! In her own home!
She wastes a moment standing there being offended, and then remembers she built this place. Turning around, she hops down the steps connecting the corridor to the shop, goes around the empty work stations, up the back staircase and through Héctor’s room. She jimmies the window open and — yes. The acoustics between the buildings act as an amplifier; she’d found that out once while making up the guest room for Papá Figaro before their falling out. She had heard his soft, drunken singing from the kitchen loud and clear, and shouting, “no music, Papá!” scared him half to death.
She puts her back against the windowsill and listens to the interrogation below.
“ — didn’t know that then.”
A rumble of a response.
“No,” Héctor says stiffly. “I did not coach Miguel to say those things. I told you, I only just found out myself.”
“Yet, you still had time for subterfuge —“
“— and if you’d ever met Los Olvidados, amigo, you would know that subterfuge is our main form of transportation. We’re invisible to you, otherwise.”
Across from her, Héctor’s work apron hangs from its peg beside the door. The bureau they hauled in from Soledad’s room has been dusted off — and now there’s a single photo frame sitting on top. Imelda hasn’t been in this room since she showed Héctor where it was.
Interest piqued, she unclenches her fists and pushes herself away from the window, crossing to the bureau.
It’s a photo of Coco, of course, from the album — one of the first color photographs that she appears in, on a trip she and Julio took for their anniversary after Elena had been born. In it, Coco stands beside a sign identifying the demarcation you could barely see behind her, an almost nonexistent line cleared out through the trees. On one side, the sign explains, you stand in Mexico. On the other, Guatemala. A bird perches on top, startlingly close to Coco, and the photograph captures the exact moment the two of them register each other: the bird glossy, golden, chest swollen and full of song; Coco, mouth forming an “o” of surprise, the expression on her face one of dawning delight.
Imelda touches the glass with her fingertips. A peculiar ache squeezes in her chest, remembering Héctor saying, I was a family of songbirds, the whole matrilineal line.
Victoria, when she returns later that afternoon, is furious.
“You let them corner him?!” she gets out, her voice wound up tight. “Without any of us there?”
“Ach, it’s not like I was given a choice!”
“When has that ever stopped — you, of all people!”
Thanks to her echo-chamber trick, Imelda can parrot back almost everything they asked — a fact that mollifies Victoria, but barely.
“I’m going to make a call,” she announces. “We’re getting that thrown out. That’s void, I don’t care that they had a faceless with them. Move, please, tía.”
This last is directed at Rosita, who obediently steps aside so that Victoria can get to the corded telephone just inside the kitchen door, a machine Imelda spends a lot of time pretending doesn’t exist.
Throughout all this, Héctor doesn’t move, still sitting hunch-backed in his chair where they’d left him, not stirring even as the women shout over his head. Imelda takes one of the vacated chairs and pulls it closer, kicking her skirts out of the way. After a moment’s hesitation, she covers his hand with hers.
“I’m sorry to hear that, about Chicharrón,” she says to him lowly. “I didn’t know it was his final death.”
He lifts his eyes and gives her one of those what-can-you-do shrugs.
“I don’t think it matters,” he says. “He’s been forgotten — he’s far beyond testifying. I couldn’t give his full name. I couldn’t even give his date of death.”
That’s not what I meant, Imelda wants to say, except he’s miles away.
“I don’t remember being reunited with him. He told me he came out in a boat and rescued me from the island of lost things. I’d traded my memory for a chance to cross the bridge,” he explains, when she makes surprised eyebrows at him. “Every day I’d forget what happened the day before. Cheech looked out for me until the curse wore off. He didn’t have to do that.”
“I bet he gave you hell for it,” she says.
At last, he cracks a smile. “Oh, you have no idea.”
“He had something for you,” he says suddenly, tugging his hand out from underneath hers and rising. “Give me a moment.”
“For me? You mean he had a reason to seek me out and never did? I knew he liked you better.”
She’s trying, and he can tell, because he smiles at her again as he squeezes past Victoria into the hall. She’s on hold with somebody, impatiently tapping her foot and directing her severest frown at Paula and Rosita’s painted cabinets, and she’s still there when Héctor comes back. He waits until Imelda extends her hand, then places something delicately wrapped into it.
Imelda knows what is even before she lifts the frail lace.
Tiny, translucent skull. Oversized fangs.
Ole Imelda’s pet snake, she hears Chicharrón say, from somewhere deep in her memory.
“If you ever saw Cheech’s home in Shanty-town, you’d know it was basically a bigger version of his wagon. He kept everything. But this survived, somehow.”
She cradles it against her chest for a moment, until the emotion stops feeling so big.
Then she opens her eyes, looks right at him, and says, “You’re avoiding your paperwork.”
His mouth pulls, wryly acknowledging. “I know.”
It’s still on the kitchen table, waiting. Neat stacks. Color-coded tabs.
He was poisoned in 1921. He spent almost a hundred years telling people it was bad food, bad water, and has enough trouble remembering the details as it is. What if he remembers it wrong, puts down the wrong testimony, and throws the whole thing into doubt?
Imelda wants to shake him. Don’t be a donkey!
But — she understands it, a little bit. It’s her entire life that got rearranged, too. Like a sinkhole in Guanajuato, something she had taken for a solid fact in her life (her husband did not love her or her daughter enough to stay with them) had dropped right out of the landscape. Streets kept ending abruptly at its edge. Trains of thought that had stood for decades had to be rerouted. She had been widowed when she was twenty-two years old, and that revelation is still altering her history.
“So you’d rather let them into our house and ask you misleading questions about him until you rewrite the story yourself?”
“They didn’t ask about Ernesto this time. It was —“
“They had a faceless with them, Héctor. Do you know anybody else who can afford that?”
“— I knew what they were doing. They’re thinking they can cast doubt on Miguel being a real living child. Because if he’s not, then Ernesto didn’t throw a real living child off the side of his tower.”
“Because — throwing a dead child off the side of his tower is better?”
“Less morally reprehensible. Less el santo.”
“I’m going to kill him,” she says calmly. “I’m going to take his bones apart, one-by-one, and bury them miles apart.”
“Do your damn paperwork, Héctor. I’m serious.”
“Yeah, I know,” he says, but he ducks his head as he says it, that telltale tic that means he is lying.
Because how can he trust that he’s right this time? If he spent one hundred years believing something that’s wrong, who’s to say he’s not wrong again? Taking Ernesto de la Cruz apart for Miguel’s sake had been easy — taking him apart for himself is another story. It’s never been Héctor’s habit. The first time he tried it, it was fatal.
Imelda clenches her fists, but someone else beats her to it.
Victoria slams both her hands down on the table between them, hard enough that everything jumps: the sugar spoons, the panela, Héctor and Imelda. They swing identical astonished faces on her.
“It was 1980,” she tells them, in an intense voice Imelda has never heard from her. “I wanted to be the first in my family to learn how to drive. I did not like my instructor, but my choices were limited and I only had to tolerate him for so long, I thought. On the day of my test, we got into an argument. I said no, and he grabbed the wheel from me and yanked. I died in the collision. He did not.”
She stops, breathes. All of her bones are wound close together, strung up tightrope-thin.
“He is still out there. You think I don’t know his face?” Her jaw trembles. “You think I am not waiting for him to arrive? I know what it’s like, but we take care of our own here. You are ours, and he does not get to win. Neither of them do.”
In the Land of the Dead, everyone contributes. Everyone makes something: art or architecture, music or light. If you cannot make, you do: the bridge custodians, the librarians, ushers and sales clerks. If you cannot do, you care. Everyone is el santo to something. Everyone.
In the end, it only takes the rest of that afternoon to put the story into a neat statement, the irrefutable progression of events that lead from Héctor Rivera arguing with his best friend in 1921 to the Sunrise Spectacular in 2017. The rest of it is putting his signature to his change in status.
When they’re done, they seal it up in a large brown envelope and send it off. Now if the policia come back, they can direct them first to the statement they gave — any further questions will have to go through the lawyer in residence.
Next Imelda sees them, they’re standing in Rosita’s garden together.
She’s about to call out to them, except Héctor’s already speaking.
“— know. I’m sorry, Victoria. I didn’t know.”
Victoria nods once, and Imelda thinks that’s it and starts forward again, but then:
“It’s such a small, and miserable, and petty way to die, murder.” Victoria’s voice is low, soaked through. “Everyone only thinks it’s intriguing — I was always the one with the clippings from the newspapers, but when it happens to you, you just stand there, like, this is it? This is what I died for? It’s never a good enough reason.”
“No,” Héctor agrees. “It’s not.”
“Do you see why I’m so adamant about this? I know I’m —”
He interrupts her. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who cares as much as you do. Anyone who can’t see that is — is — an idiot,” he finishes, apparently unable to find a harsher word. “And I’ll throw something at them.”
“I’d like to see that.” Victoria’s voice isn’t so structurally unsound, now.
Then Héctor says, lower than that, “It’s all yours, in a way.”
He gestures, and Imelda can’t tell you how she knows, because she quite deliberately chose this spot as the place to build her shop because you can’t see that monstrosity, but she knows he means de la Cruz’s ivory tower.
“It’s your heritage, you know. Your mother’s, and yours, too. Everything he has. It was all mine, first.”
For a moment, Victoria does nothing but shift in place, absorbing this; the bulbs overhead cast a reflective sheen on her carefully-maintained updo. She toes at Rosita’s tidy labeling, the vegetable plots mostly done for the season except for a few persistent bursts of greenery.
“It’s okay,” she says finally. “I didn’t know, either. I don’t think I ever realized we all got our name from you.”
“Oh, no,” Héctor protests. “That was Imelda. I’m the one who should be honored to have her name. Your name, too. If that’s all right.”
Imelda, still hanging back and watching from the porch, isn’t expecting it, but Héctor must be. When Victoria moves, his arms are already open to catch her. They embrace — so hard that Héctor squeaks, and Victoria laughs, unapologetic, and squeezes him tighter — and maybe it all happened in the wrong order, but Imelda knows this is going to be one of those memories she’ll keep in a jar for as long as there’s still a polish on her bones — this moment right here, watching her husband hold their granddaughter to his chest for the first time.
Like many do, Paula divides her year between households. The first six months she spends with the Riveras.
So the only person who doesn’t expect her to come and kick down the door almost as soon as the clock ticks over into the new year is Héctor, who was minding his own business and gets bowling-pinned right through the entryway. The unmistakable clattering of bones going everywhere drives Imelda out to investigate.
“I am so sorry!” Paula is exclaiming, aghast.
“It’s all right, it’s all right,” Héctor hastens to assure her, fishing underneath the side table for the rib that had gotten lodged there. “Do you need help with those?”
“I ... oh, dear, if you don’t mind.”
Hopping a little until the rest of his leg pulls itself over to join him, Héctor steps out to help her carry her luggage in.
“Where am I going with these?” he asks.
“Oh! Well, typically —“
At that moment, Rosita materializes through the archway leading out back, breathless from the sprint.
“I thought I heard — ?” she starts, then halts.
And Paula trails off mid-sentence.
“She goes in my room, tío,” Rosita tells him, when it becomes clear that Paula’s too tongue-tied at the sight of her to answer. “This is my wife.”
And she beams, and Paula beams back, for a moment completely caught up in gratitude that in the Land of the Dead, they can call each other what they are. The radius of their joy encompasses everyone in the vicinity. Imelda hangs back and feels vaguely itchy, like someone with a skin condition who’s been told to stay out of the sun.
“Oh, Paula, of course! I should have known.” Héctor stoops, picks up her suitcases. “I’ll get these.”
When he’s gone, Paula looks back bemusedly.
“You didn’t tell me we got a call for a new arrival,” she says, and Imelda knows she isn’t imagining the look that softens through Rosita’s face, astonished all anew that Paula includes herself in that “we”. “Whose kid was that?”
Imelda sighs. Is she going to have to go through this with everyone?
“Héctor?” Rosita chortles. “Oh, no, that Mamá Imelda’s husband.”
“… what,” says Paula in a completely different tone, and, “oh, yes, that’s new, I wore it just for you — do you like it? — no, I’m sorry, wait, what!”
Having Paula back buoys them for weeks — everyone’s been saving their best stories for her. A household that has Paula and Rosita in it at the same time is a simple second-hand joy, like having warm socks at night.
And she’s the best cook in the family. That has a lot to do with it.
It’s a lovely, golden kind of afternoon, and the kitchen smells heavenly. (All dishes in the Land of the Dead are vegetarian, of course, just as all the leather is synthetic. Imelda misses it, but only sometimes. Animals here don’t have any more skin than the people do.)
Óscar and Felipe are regaling them all with a complicated story they’ve been saving for this, waving their arms around and jumping ahead of each other in the narrative; Paula leans against the stove, listening, and Héctor gets up to lend them a hand — literally, he yanks it off, tosses it at them, and sits back down. Feeling something a little too close to happiness, Imelda abruptly stands and leaves the kitchen.
There really isn’t anywhere to go to get away from it, and she winds up standing in her bedroom for a long time. She has a painting of Guanajuato City on the wall; all the candy-colored buildings clustered together in the forefront, the streets brightly sunlit and unthreatened by the clouds brewing in the mountains in the background. Her nightstand is cluttered, built-up with the detritus that fifty years of work has pulled out of her pockets at the end of the day, but the rest of it is fairly tidy. There’s nothing for her to straighten up. She picks up Chicharrón’s snake skull. Puts it back down.
Stop this, she tells herself, and goes back out.
She encounters Héctor in the hallway outside his room.
“Imelda,” and as he turns to let her slide past, she stops him with an outstretched hand and an exasperated “oh, come here.”
Grabbing his jacket, she turns him towards the light to see what she’s doing. She hikes at the waist of his pants, startling a noise out of him, which she answers with a rude one of her own. Deftly, she unhooks his suspender and bends her head over it so she can fix the clasp, the one that had been winking at her crookedly from the start.
It’s simple, the kind of fix that’s second-nature to her now, fishing her pliers out of her apron to wrench the clasp right-way around again.
“There,” she says when she’s done.
She glances up —
And freezes, because Héctor’s got a hand lifted to her face. He’s not touching her, but he might as well be — his knuckles are poised an inch above her jaw, like just the idea of making contact has him paralyzed, and the look on his face isn’t anything she recognizes.
Without meaning to, she comes up and mirrors the gesture. Her hand skates above his cheek.
“Were these always this color?” she asks.
He blinks. “Eh?”
“Your tattoos.” The rising pattern around his eyes, like a songbird with its wings outstretched. “I must not have noticed. They were difficult to see under …”
“… under all that grey?” he finishes for her. He hesitates, then pulls his hand back from her face to touch his own, tracing the design along his cheekbone. “Imelda, I haven’t … there’s no mirror in Soledad’s room. What color are they?”
“Turquoise,” she points. “And gold.”
Something desolate happens in his eyes.
“Turquoise and gold?”
“And go-ooold,” her voice lilts up to sing that high note, because of course her body remembers it, because of course it would pick right now to betray her, when she most needs it under her control.
Underneath the grime of all that came after, turquoise and gold.
They stare at each other, dazed airless by their proximity, the both of them waiting for the other to react: for Héctor to make a joke, for Imelda to say something scathing.
She can almost see it scripted for her, and so she sees the moment it becomes too late to tell him this isn’t — this can’t be anything. She’s still mad. She is. Not for being murdered, but for leaving in the first place, and to let him — now, after all this —
Something flickers in his eyes.
The next moment —
They pivot, and Imelda’s back hits the wall hard enough to make her gasp. Héctor steps into her, pressing flush to her front.
Their ribs bump and clatter, their hips notch with a click, and Imelda grabs fistfuls of her skirts to keep herself from touching. But Héctor doesn’t bother with restraint; his hands take hold of her face, cupping her jaw and sliding to the nape of her neck, with reverence, with inhaling greed. He rubs the knot at the base of her skull, under her hair, like he’s been aching to do it.
She lists into the contact, unable to help it.
“— I’ve missed you,” she tunes in to hear someone saying, low and way too fast, and it’s a shock to realize that it’s her.
Their faces are so close. One hand stays on her face, but the other skates over her shoulders, her back, tugging on her restlessly and hiking her a little further up on his thigh. There is nowhere for her to go that isn’t into him.
“I missed you,” she murmurs to him. “I missed this, I missed it — and it’s so stupid, isn’t it. I missed everything about you at one point or another, but I still found time to miss that, too, how no one could fill me up like you could — what I wouldn’t give to have you inside of me again — Héctor —“
He moans, hips hitching against hers, and it shivers into the spaces between her bones that don’t have names.
“— do you remember that?” she breathes. “I can’t forget it.”
“Imelda,” he says back. “Imelda — kiss me, please —”
— and it would be so easy.
The easiest thing in the world, to rock upwards, to hook her elbow around his neck and kiss him, her husband, whom she had known for a scant few years as a young girl, whom she had known completely.
It would be easy, to touch their tattoos, and Imelda doesn’t have the faintest clue what she would do after that.
Her grip on her skirts tightens.
She turns her head away.
A long beat passes, and then another, and then Héctor’s hands slip from her face. His arms drop to his sides.
They glance at each other once, then away.
And Imelda feels it all the way to her knuckles, the painful creak of letting go, so that she can slip sideways and walk off, down the hall, down the stairs, to be somewhere he is not.
She’s down in the cellar checking for spare extension cords — something she’s been meaning to do for months, and suddenly the middle of their lunch break seemed like the perfect time to do it — and when she comes back up the ladder, she finds Victoria waiting for her at the top, her arms folded.
She stops. “Victoria.”
“Abuela,” she says, formally, and Imelda goes on the defensive. They are not that kind of family. “You need to stop.”
“Stop what?” Imelda says blankly.
“Punishing Papá Héctor.”
Immediately, Imelda flares up, in the disproportionate way you do when you know you’re wrong, when you know you’ve let it go on too long and don’t intend to be gracious about it.
“A consequence of his actions?” Victoria guesses, unerringly, and Imelda’s jaw snaps shut. “You never let us get away with blaming ourselves, not when we’re the consequence of somebody else, so why him?”
Irritated, Imelda replies, “You know very well why him!”
Victoria just sighs.
It’s a sigh with several layers to it, deliberate and emphatic, heavy with disappointment, and it’s almost enough to make Imelda fidget before she catches herself. Who exactly is supposed to be reprimanding who here!
She wants to say: my anger is justified.
She wants to say: I’m not mad at him for Ernesto’s actions, I’m mad at him for his own.
She wants to say: I almost lost him and I cannot go through that again, but I don’t know if I can live with him, either.
And this is why they sent Victoria, she realizes. The one person in this household she cannot mow down through sheer force of will. She’s the one who can look Imelda in the eye and remind her that hating the musician is a learned behavior, one she passed on to her daughter, to Soledad, who passed it on to their children. It’s not her natural state.
And once Imelda’s peeled back the excuses, she’s left with nothing but the truth.
And the truth is this:
That if Imelda can be Victoria’s grandmother, Coco’s mother, Héctor’s wife, if she could be a farrier and a musician and a shoemaker, and being good at any one of those things does not make her less of anything else — then Héctor, too, might be more than the faithless husband who left her.
You don’t have to keep everything that happened to you.
Everyone is a filter of all their experiences. Sorting out what you don’t want to keep, the strain and the sieve of it, is part of how you work.
Imelda can love her hometown, the damp iron smell and the mountain peaks that form a ribcage around a heart of clouds, and still be glad she got out of there. She can be glad she left her family, and still want to build a new one that her descendants are proud to belong to.
She can be scared of the intensity with which her husband makes her feel, and want to keep him too.
“— ow! Hey!”
“This vest is trash. I mean, it was already, but now it’s really trash. Hold still.”
“You don’t have to do that!”
“Oh yes I do.”
“What,” says Imelda from the doorway, “happened.”
Héctor and Ines freeze.
Ines, today, has forgone the beehived hair in favor of a poof the same shape and color of a pumpkin, held in place atop her head by a brightly-patterned piece of broadcloth. Her three-piece suit is almost conservative, for her, except for the sparkly sequined vest that peeks out in flashes from under her jacket. She’s got her sleeves unbuttoned and rolled up over her radius and ulna. She brandishes a scrub brush in one hand. A tin of bone polish sits balanced precariously on the stuffed arm of the armchair. Héctor squirms, but she has him pinned.
He recovers first.
Showing teeth, he starts to say, brightly, “Nothing! It’s just —“
“He tried to talk to that punk rock biker of yours,” Ines deadpans, and his mouth snaps shut. His eyebrows make betrayed shapes in her direction.
“Soledad?” she says, bewildered. “You went to see Soledad? … You?”
And, just like that, realizes what she’s looking at.
Skid marks. From rubber. Héctor came back with tire tracks on his bones and Ines went immediately for the bone polish, because those can leave permanent discolorations if left untreated. Shakily, Imelda sinks into the chair opposite, underneath the portraits: the Madonna, Juárez, Casa Rivera.
Héctor switches tactics. “Okay, but — she’s going to take my vest, Imelda, please don’t let her.”
“It’s hideous, and it’s been shredded,” Ines points out, sucking in air through her gap teeth.
“We can get you a new one,” Imelda says. Then, at the look on his face, “or repair that one. I think Rosita still keeps in touch with that seamstress friend of yours — Ceci, was it? Now,” she adds, when he opens his mouth to argue. “Why on earth did you think it was a good idea to see Soledad?”
“Ehh … it wasn’t well thought out,” Héctor allows, diplomatically. “But if she’s not talking to you, I thought maybe if she got a chance to vent at me, it would fix it.”
“And she ran you over with her motorbike. Oh.” Unbidden, Imelda’s heart does something pulpy and fond. “She got that from me.”
“We don’t want her alienated from us, right?” He checks. “I wanted to make a gesture.”
And she flashes to a memory of him looking at the incorrect sizing on an order form and saying, is it fixable? She scowls. This isn’t what she meant.
Shaking her head slowly, she says, “I don’t think it can be you or me who does that. There’s too much tied up in us, for her. It might … it might have to be Coco who fixes that bridge.”
“No,” Héctor disagrees. “There must be something we can do first.”
She frowns. “Are you listening to me?”
“Of course I am, but —“
It’s not like she’s keeping her distance from Soledad because she wants to. She’s her mother, it’s her job to protect her, and how can she do that when the thing that’s hurting her the most right now is her?
Frustration mounting, she shifts forward to sit on the edge of the cushion.
How can she explain that to Héctor in a way he’ll understand? This is the same man who tried to cross the marigold bridge ninety-six times, because that’s what parents do for children. Anything else … wouldn’t make sense to him. He’s approaching this like it’s something that can and will be fixed.
“— not her responsibility,” Héctor’s insisting. “We can’t rely on Coco to fix our mistakes, that’s not how it works.”
“— it’d be even worse if I corner her and demand she listen to me when she’s not ready —“
“— she’s Coco’s best friend —”
“That’s right, she is,” Imelda cuts in, on a loudly escalating note. “Do you remember when they were young girls, when no one else wanted to be friends with them? Oh, wait — that’s right,” she jabs a finger at him, “you weren’t there.”
“I would have been!” he roars back. “But someone took me and my entire family off the ofrenda!”
“You did that yourself — !“
“— you erased me!”
A ringing silence descends.
They glare at each other. Imelda’s chest heaves. Héctor’s got his teeth bared, the gold one a sharp glint.
Ines, at this point, is trying her hardest to blend into the wallpaper, but she’s not the horsey forgettable cousin anymore and this just gives the impression that someone in Imelda’s family has installed a fancy, sequined sculpture with a particularly uncomfortable look on its face.
A pause, and then Héctor sets his jaw. Stubbornly.
“Whatever. Doesn’t matter now. I,” he enunciates with great care. “Just want to fix it. So. What are we going to do?”
Imelda’s stinging, hurting, like it’s hot water and lye in the cuts on her hands all over again.
“We wait for Soledad to decide what she wants,” she snaps. “I’m the one who let her down — I showed a fundamental weakness she couldn’t forgive me for. She has to rearrange her whole idea of me, and that takes time, Héctor. I cannot — she’s the only one who can decide to let me back into her life. To force the issue would just —“
She comes to an abrupt halt.
Slowly, she starts to sink back into the armchair, and then changes her mind, pushing herself to her feet.
“… Imelda?” Héctor says to her back.
And Imelda grabs her hat and says, “Ines.”
“Er. Yes?” says the sculpture against the wall, nervously.
“Can you come with me?”
Her cousin materializes at her side, throwing an apologetic look over her shoulder. Héctor makes a helpless I don’t know gesture back at her. “Where are we going?”
You don’t have to keep it all, everything they made you hate about yourself, just because making you feel small made them feel bigger.
It wasn’t her fault. All that resentment. All those things Imelda had to unlearn before she could come to this point.
“I think,” Imelda says, “that it’s time I talk to my mother.”
Several days later, while they’re all in the shop, a visitor comes clattering down the steps.
When Imelda first decided to forge her own household, roughly thirty minutes after she arrived, the place she’d picked had been at the top of its skyscraper. In the half-century since, new layers were constructed on top in increasingly modern styles, and included not only a cable-car stop but a bike path, too, much to the delight of Soledad’s motorcycle gang. There’s a number of different ways to travel between levels, but one main staircase spirals all the way down the outside of the skyscraper.
Imelda’s gotten used to her upstairs and downstairs neighbors — they aren’t disruptive, not as a habit, so it’s something of a surprise when a man comes dashing down the outer staircase, spots their sign stuck out prominently where air traffic will see it, and grabs hold of the post, swinging around it nearly full-circle to kill his momentum. He pelts the rest of the way and skids into their window. He flings his elbows across the wood, heaving for breath.
“Buenos días,” Rosita choruses at him. “Do you have an appointment for a fitting?”
It’s pretty obvious that he doesn’t. People don’t careen into the counter like that over shoes.
Around them, the shop noises continue, unhurried: Óscar and Felipe swap wooden models, then swap again.
“Victoria,” Héctor hisses, pulling a drawer with shoelaces almost entirely off its track so he can stick his hand all the way to the back. “Which color was it — chestnut or chocolate? And … if we’re being honest, what’s the difference?”
“Are you serious?” Victoria replies, in a tone that suggests he better not be.
He squints. “Is chocolate supposed to be darker? Is that what I’m supposed to be taking away from this?”
The man at the front window pulls himself together with visible effort.
His gaze darts all around the shop, not landing on anything for very long until it finds the two standing by the drawers. Then it snags.
“Is …” he clears his throat, eyes snapping back to Rosita’s quizzically waiting expression. “Is Héctor Rivera here?”
“Sí?” says Héctor, straightening and turning in surprise. Except for the police, nobody’s come looking for him at the shop before.
“I — “ the man starts, then falters.
An expectant beat, and then Rosita bustles forward, lifting up the counter so that the door swings inwards and gesturing for him to step inside. Curious, Imelda stretches to get a better look.
He’s a small man, with appealingly slim hips and eyes clustered too close together in the middle of his face, so you get the impression they’re always tucked up there gossiping about you as they watch you walk away. Shooting stars bloom in the tattoos around his eye sockets. From his clothes, Imelda would guess he’s a 30’s arrival.
“That’s,” he swallows nervously, nodding in thanks to Rosita. “That’s my name. Too, that’s my name too. I’m Héctor del Rio, and I think —”
Another bob of the bones in his neck, and he plunges on.
“I heard he poisoned you. I heard that and I — I think he murdered me too. Ernesto, I think he murdered me too.”
Silence in the shop doesn’t so much fall as land, gruesomely, like it had been dropped from a great height. Everyone tries not to look too closely at the gore of it. In the absence of all sound, Héctor del Rio stands in front of the sizing chart, looking miserable.
Then Héctor Rivera speaks.
“My friend,” he says, with aching sympathy. “Would you like to come into the house? You look like could use a drink.”
A blink, and they blanch in unison.
“Well,” Héctor swiftly corrects, “perhaps not that, but come in anyway.”
He gestures, and they mount the steps together into the main house. They’re gone for about ten minutes before Héctor pokes his head in.
“Imelda,” he says. “I could use your help, if you’re available. You too, Victoria.”
Inside their flowered kitchen, Héctor del Rio looks comically out of place, a little too sleek and cumbersome in his sharp, oily clothing and sharp, oily hair, not unlike a seal that’s found itself much too far inland.
“This is the head of our household,” Héctor says to him, pulling out a chair for Imelda. “And this is my granddaughter, Victoria, who helped me through this process when I did it. Are you comfortable repeating to them what you told me?”
And Imelda almost misses del Rio’s reply, because Héctor’s using a tone she recognizes all the way through, and suddenly she places it: it’s how he used to speak to Coco. It’s how he spoke to Miguel, without grace or artifice or theatrics. Just kindness, and care.
At her elbow, Victoria pulls a legal pad from her apron pouch and plucks the pen Héctor extends towards her. They make it look seamless.
Imelda tunes in to what del Rio’s saying.
“— the producer for his movies. It was my job to tell him whether or not his ideas were feasible. But this was the 30’s. Anything Ernesto de la Cruz wanted to do was feasible. Infante, Negrete, de la Cruz, the wonderful Maria Bonita — whatever they wanted to do, you made happen. That’s just how things were. The golden age,” his voice grows wistful. “Everything we touched — pure Tenochtitlán gold.”
“Why would de la Cruz want to kill you?” Victoria asks. “Sounds like it would have been hard to live without you.”
Del Rio’s smile turns rueful.
“Because I was in love with him,” he says, soft.
Ah, Imelda thinks.
“I went to bed with him the moment he offered. Man like that, if there’s a chance — you don’t hesitate. I was Ernesto de la Cruz’s lover for ten years. In secret, of course, because there wasn’t any other option — honestly, I’m still amazed we never got caught. I suppose it’s not like there was a shortage of women for him to cavort with, should he need to dangle one around as a distraction.”
“Ten years?” says Héctor. “That’s a long time to keep a relationship secret.”
“And it’s why our fights were so bad, at the end. We knew each other too well. I might as well have been the guitar in his lap: which of my insecurities could he pluck today to make me to sing the note he wanted me to sing, and no other?”
Imelda glances up sharply, but the gentleness in Héctor’s expression doesn’t change.
Del Rio tugs on his cuffs. He picks nonexistent lint off his suit.
He doesn’t look at them. It takes him awhile to gather his thoughts, and Imelda gets the feeling he’s spent a long time not telling this story.
“We fought. Bad. He reminded me that I had him to thank for all of my success — like it doesn’t take a hundred people to make a movie — like their parts don’t contribute to the whole, but could he hear that over the sound of his own ego? — and I was sick of it. I warned him that all it would take from me was one hint about his proclivities and he’d lose it all.” He shakes his head, fast. “I wouldn’t have done it. Outing him would have outed me, and even on the days when I couldn’t remember why I loved him, I still had enough self-interest to protect me. But he went dead quiet. I thought that was that.”
The clock ticks over the stove. At the table, everyone is silent.
“I went to bed. Same as I have always done.” Del Rio stretches his hands out in front of him, like he’s laying a scene — a set. “My bedside table — reading glasses, book, rosary, coaster with no water glass, and I got up to get one but he was already bringing it to me. I thought it was an apology. I wanted it to be an apology.
“I did not wake up.”
Imelda exchanges a look with Victoria.
What else do you do with rats?
He looks up at them.
“I pitied him,” comes leaking out of him; something locked in the dark so long it’s unrecognizable. “I thought, how terrible it must have been for him, to have me die in my sleep beside him! I thought, it must have traumatized him — I wasn’t old, I wasn’t sick, there’s no reason I should have passed away, but these things happen, right?”
“And that’s why you thought he was avoiding you, after he died?”
“Yes,” del Rio sags. “And I let him.”
“So did I,” says Héctor. “Those stupid jokes.”
Again, that unhappy gash of a smile tears at del Rio’s mouth.
“You know,” he says — lowly, in the tone of voice people use when they’ve got a secret for you, “We used to toast to you, although he never said your name to me.”
He mimes holding up a glass.
“‘To the mistakes we made when we were young, amigo, all the countries of people we had to travel through to get to each other. ¡Salud!’”
Héctor rolls his eyes. “Classic,” he mutters, and del Rio snorts a laugh.
“God,” he continues, watching Héctor with a dawning kind of wonder in his eyes, “how could I not see it? The shape of you was everywhere, in all we did. I could always tell if a conversation was about you. For some supposed mistake from his youth, it … sure did feel like we were always making room for you.”
A shake of Héctor’s head. “Don’t sell yourself short. You lasted twice as long as his lover than I did — that’s not nothing.”
In her peripheral, Victoria startles, and almost has an expression.
She didn’t know, Imelda realizes, and blinks in shock. Did Héctor not put it in his deposition? Oh, Héctor.
For Victoria’s unassailable calm to break is uncommon enough that it draws Héctor’s attention, and del Rio’s, too. Imelda thinks he might have forgotten they were there.
“Ach,” he sits back. “Lo siento, señoras, that was indelicate of me. This isn’t the place for that kind of talk —“
“I had sex with him too,” Imelda interrupts, and Victoria has two expressions at once.
The men look at her with matching scandalized faces, but Imelda lived to see Mexico in the 1960’s and they did not: if she could get over the prudish aversion to calling it what it is, so can they.
(Once, she’d known without a doubt that she was the only woman Ernesto had ever slept with — and now she’s reasonably sure that’s no longer true. Which is fine. It’s not a club she wanted exclusive membership to.)
She opens her mouth to add something cutting, but Victoria’s hand lands on her shoulder and digs in. The message is clear: if Héctor spent a hundred years avoiding food because he thought it’s what killed him, then it’s probably taken all of del Rio’s bravery to admit this much, that he loved men and loved Ernesto specifically, and he was murdered for it.
“It sounds to me like you’ve got a case,” her granddaughter says deferentially, “and there are several courses of action you can take, but I’m going to get the big question out of the way first. Do you want to petition for his light?”
Imelda stops breathing.
Across the table, Héctor’s eyes double in size, and something terrible dawns on del Rio’s face. It’s slow to sink in, what that means.
All of Ernesto’s marigold worth, all those offerings from his fans, the monumental weight of history — all of it his by proxy, because Ernesto owes him his life.
“Yes,” he says, without hesitation.
“Wait,” and as he blinks, some of that intense, shining greed fades away. He looks to Héctor. “What about you? I’m — I will be remembered well enough on my own, my name’s all over his movies, but you — he never even said your name to me. I didn’t know who you were until I saw you on the Jumbotron. Shouldn’t you …”
Imelda doesn’t dare move. Doesn’t dare blink.
She needs to know the answer. Héctor has every right to claim Ernesto’s light.
And anyone who did …
They could live forever.
Del Rio reaches out, slipping a hand under Héctor’s arm and turning it over, revealing the broken bone and the rolled-up, pilled edges of the duct tape holding it in place.
“You could fix this,” he says, very quiet.
Héctor tugs his arm free and pulls it in close to his body. He looks down at his hands. He knots his fingers. Unknots them.
“I want to talk to my daughter first,” he says finally, and Imelda hasn’t budged an inch but he looks to her anyway. Their eyes meet with a crack. Her hands clench. “Ask her what she wants, before I make that decision.”
Slowly, slowly, Imelda releases the breath she’d been holding.
“I understand,” and, remarkably, del Rio sounds genuine about it.
He sits up, running a hand over his slicked-back hair, then looks to Victoria again. “I want no claim on his light at this time.”
And Victoria clicks her pen. “Then let’s discuss our options.”
To nobody’s surprise, Héctor del Rio is a regular fixture around the Rivera household from that moment on.
Some things you can’t go through without becoming friends, and being murdered by the same man is one of those things.
So it’s del Rio who sees the notice in the paper, who stops mid-bite and goes as still as — well, as a corpse. He’s so rigid it draws Imelda’s attention from the sheer physicality of it, that much non-movement in a person.
Finally, he puts his roll down and looks up. His face is —
His shooting stars are drained of color.
Nobody else at the table takes notice; everything else keeps moving.
Imelda doesn’t remember the last time their kitchen was so full; Paula keeps popping out of her chair to bus dishes; Victoria puts her scissors down and Ceci wordlessly picks them up, the both of them with a growing mound of cut-out articles from their respective periodicals and a growing curiosity in each other; Doña Flores, called Ngobe, forgets about her plate and looks around wide-eyed with wonder. Her flower petal tattoos are identical to Imelda’s; she listens raptly to the twins and their enthusiastic conversation with their engineer.
He’s a white-haired old man with a face tattooed in anatomical classifications, cursive script pinpointing his orbital plate, his nasal conch and mandible, the way some people classify mountains. He was the one person they insisted that they find when they first arrived in the Land of the Dead. They hadn’t seen him since they did the swap, the engineer marrying the daughter of San Juan Albán’s mayor, the twins going to Zacatlán to apprentice.
(Imelda respects that: those people who enter your life for a few years when you’re young, who manage to rearrange you, despite all your efforts to not be rearranged.)
Del Rio opens his mouth, but then Rosita overflows with laughter at something Felipe says, which of course makes the whole table laugh because they can’t not, not when Rosita laughs like that.
He closes it again.
Imelda puts a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder and levers herself to her feet. He smiles up at her, and she squeezes past Yolande and the empty chair where Soledad usually sits to get to del Rio’s side as unobtrusively as possible. He startles when she appears beside him.
She lifts her eyebrows.
Wordlessly, he passes her the paper.
For a moment, Imelda has no idea what she’s looking at, and then she sees it: it’s a public notification on the same page as the new arrival announcements, weddings, and sundry.
The Department of Afterlife Affairs is looking for a representative from Ernesto de la Cruz’s household to sponsor him while he pays out his life-debt. He had none by birthright or death rite, so they’re going further afield trying to find somebody; you always belong to some household by blood, but other households are forged by circumstances, and these count, too.
If no one claims him, he’ll be handed down to Los Olvidados.
Del Rio’s distress makes immediate sense. That cannot be allowed to happen. He cannot be left without supervision. He’s too clever, too winsome, he’d find some way to crawl out and come back. It wouldn’t be a punishment.
And isn’t that ironic, that she needs him to be sponsored so that he can be punished, and for that, he needs a family.
She puts the paper down. She rests her hand on del Rio’s shoulder.
“Yeah,” he agrees, heavily.
That night, after everyone’s gone, Imelda goes through the house, turning off the lights as she goes, then climbs the stairs to her room. She isn’t surprised at all to find Héctor waiting for her in the hallway. He looks like he’s been there for awhile.
He sees her and straightens up, nervously turning the brim of his hat in his hands.
She cuts over him before he can start.
“Of course we’re going. Now go to bed.”
“Oh,” says Héctor. And, “oh,” again.
The next day, she tells the family that she and Héctor are taking an early afternoon to go to the Department of Afterlife Affairs. The whole trip down, they hardly say a word to each other. Every time she glances at him, she sees a whole confused mess of things on his face, morphing and shifting the more he wrestles with them.
Together, they squint upwards at the light winking off the dome over the rotunda, and as they mount the steps, she reaches out. They stop. He looks at her hand on his arm.
“Imelda?” he checks.
She’s been trying to think of what to say. There’s so many ways you could parse Ernesto’s motives, try to dissect him in reverse —
And none of it matters. There’s one truth that encompasses all the others, eclipses them.
She tears her gaze away from the sky (blue, blue, blue) and looks her husband dead in the eye and says, “Héctor. He tried to kill Miguel.”
The expression on Héctor’s face calcifies into place.
“I know,” he answers, in a voice she’s almost never heard from him. Hard as stone. As bone. Her valley boy, turned mountain. “I know.”
“I’m sorry, señor.” The clerk they’ve been directed to has the firm, apologetic tone honed by government employees everywhere. “There’s no validity to your claim.”
Héctor flattens his hands on the counter. He cranes forward.
“I’m his family!” he insists. “What do you mean, no validity? If there’s anyone in this world who could have that claim, it’s me.”
The clerk glances again at her notecard, and almost has an expression.
“Wait — aren’t you the victim? A victim,” she corrects.
“Well, yes,” Héctor fumbles, then brushes it aside. “But we raised each other! We were orphans —“
“I think there’s a clause in here that prevents victims from sponsoring their murderers.”
“— hey, niña,” he snaps his fingers in front of her, “there are other orphans, aren’t there, who had to take the church’s name because they didn’t have their own. Don’t they count as his family if they’ve got his name?”
She gives him a pointed look. “Are you one of them?”
There are marigold petals caught in the grating along the bottom of the counter, and they keep shivering with every go-around of the revolving doors at the end of the hall. Imelda stoops, plucking one free, and then blinks.
Slowly, she twirls it.
“I have an idea,” she says, interrupting their back-and-forth, and they stop and look at her.
She asks the clerk, “What, exactly, constitutes a binding oath?”
“A lot of things.” The clerk pushes back from the counter, pulling out an accordion folder full of pamphlets. “But there are just as many caveats, too, to prevent things that, say, teenagers swear to each other in their swagger years from becoming legally binding in death.” She taps her chin thoughtfully. “Consecrated ground tops the list.”
Check, Imelda thinks.
“Some kind of handfasting with both parties repeating the oaths or vows.”
“An exchange of some kind — blood, traditionally, but —“
“Sex?” Imelda guesses.
“Oh, yeah, that’ll work,” she agrees, with a distracted nod in her direction.
Well, that didn’t happen on consecrated ground at the same time as the handfasting, but …
Héctor thins his eyes at her. “I know that face,” he says. “What are you thinking?”
Upon his death, Ernesto de la Cruz would have taken care to invalidate Héctor’s ties to him. It probably wouldn’t work for Héctor del Rio, either. Ernesto didn’t want to belong to them. But she’s willing to bet that he forgot about her. He shot the horse, and did not look to see what became of the woman.
“I think,” Imelda says, “I have a claim.”
On the day that Héctor Rivera and Imelda Consequela Flores got up to be married in front of the cross and all its witnesses, Ernesto de la Cruz picked up his guitar and said, my friends, will you sing with me? And the sound of their voices drew God Himself down from heaven; you could hear Him in the cathedral tower, in the deep-chested reverberations of the bell as it hummed along — it would inspire Ernesto’s performances for years to come.
Much later, after all the food and the dancing, the groom’s best friend and the bride lifted the broken lock and snuck into the darkened church, where even the last of the blessing candles had burned down to nubs.
Lit only by the light of the sanctuary, which never went out, Ernesto and Imelda stood in front of the altar, the gilt cupola overhead, the marble underfoot stained soft with light.
Before they could lose their courage, they clasped hands de la cruz, and spoke.
“I, Imelda Consequela Flores, vow to love and cherish your husband,” said Imelda to Ernesto.
And Ernesto said to Imelda, “I, Ernesto de la Cruz, vow to love and cherish your husband.”
He didn’t falter over the word this time. His eyes were very bright, the grip they had on each other’s hands white-knuckled.
He said, “I vow to aid you in his keeping, his happiness, his health,” and Imelda had to work the lump of sudden feeling from her throat before she could repeat the words back.
She finished, “You have the aid of my household in this endeavor, my name is your name, your name is theirs, may God witness us aligned,” and he swore it, and then he pulled Imelda’s hands up and kissed her knuckles, soft and with feeling.
Beside her, Héctor looks poleaxed, staring at her stunned and floodlit.
“You did that?” he whispers. “For me?”
“He’s a lying, faithless, oath-breaking piece of donkey shit,” Imelda says succinctly, “but by your own rules, that makes him my family. I am a de la Cruz, and he is a Consequela,” which, she thinks suddenly, would also explain her own case worker’s shock upon her arrival, how she choked when she saw the list of households Imelda could have joined. Ernesto de la Cruz would have been one of them.
She shows teeth. “We’ll give him to my uncle. He hasn’t been forgotten yet — they still tell stories in San Juan Albán about what an ass he was, I’m sure. Tío Consequela won’t even let him sneeze.”
The clerk looks to Héctor.
He makes a helpless gesture. “Ask the marigolds.”
The clerk looks back to Imelda.
She lifts the petal. “I charge Ernesto de la Cruz to the head of the Consequela household for keeping for the duration of his life-debt,” and it ignites, soft as a single lit candle, as the only light in the sanctuary of all cathedrals.
If the first great theft of Imelda’s life was to steal herself and her brothers out of San Juan Albán, and the second was stealing herself and Coco from the brink of poverty and disaster, then the third great theft of Imelda’s life is this:
She steals Ernesto de la Cruz, the greatest musician in Mexican history. She puts him in a box.
She buries him.
The day’s starting to turn to dusk as they push through the doors to the Department of Afterlife Affairs, and the streetlights are just coming on: first the enormous braziers that light the pyramids at the base of every skyscraper, and then it climbs through the haciendas the conquistadors left behind, skeletons with tapers running around the great gothic churches, the first gas lamps jumping to the strings of heavy bulbs and then the twinkling little lights, the supermercados and the chrome-and-glass apartment blocks with the construction cranes still standing crooked among them.
They pause in front of a crossing to let a trolley go past, and Imelda says, “I went to the funeral, you know.”
Héctor, who’d been leaning against the railing, slips and bangs his chin hard enough to pop his head off his neck.
She catches it before it hits the ground and hands it back.
“It wasn’t hard,” she continues, while he’s still blinking at her from his own arms. “The procession went through Santa Cecilia’s main streets, you couldn’t walk without tripping over some tourist or their flowers. This was before the gaudy marble mausoleum, of course, they built that later.”
It had been one holy hell of a nuisance, truth be told.
What, she remembers thinking, did they run out of graveyards in Mexico City? What business did Ernesto de la Cruz have being buried in Santa Cecilia? He’d barely even lived there. Imelda gave his room to the twins. He didn’t come back, not even for the movie they made about his life — the Santa Cecilia in that had all been prop pieces.
But on the day of the funeral there’d been a moment, just the one, as she was coming out of her room and sorting which glove went on which hand, where she wanted Coco to be there with her.
She stopped, swayed in place, and then called “Coco,” without knowing what she was going to say after that.
That musician, the one they’ve got all the streets blocked off for — he’s your godfather.
Will you come with me?
But Coco was in the kitchen, and Imelda walked in just in time to hear her say “— but that’s just what happens when you’re a bumblebee,” and Julio, Rosita, and Soledad all recoiled in unison, realizing too late that they’d walked right into the pun. At their protracted groans, Coco laughed until she snorted, one hand under her big belly to support it. She’d been seven months pregnant with Victoria then, standing in a sun-soaked kitchen with the people she loved most, and Imelda saw this and loved her with such sudden intensity it almost took her out at the knees, and then she’d gone to stake out a spot on Ernesto’s funeral route alone.
“I went because thought I’d see you there.” Her hand goes to her throat, tugging at the ribbon. “I thought … I thought if anything would lure you out, it’d be that.”
Two bat-winged armadillo alebrijes sweep overhead, loudly arguing with each other and coming close enough to stir Imelda’s hair.
She watches them go. “Do you want to know the worst part?”
Héctor pops his head back onto his neck.
“Imelda, we don’t have to do this —“
“You were there. In his mind, you were there, you — you — were being buried with him, as was only right. The guitar, Héctor,” she stresses, when she sees he still doesn’t get it. “That stupid guitar, you won’t believe how furious I was when that movie came out — those posters, it was the first time I saw him with it. My wedding gift to you, that you named for our baby, and I thought you — what? Just passed it to him, like I was nothing?”
An airless croak is the only noise he manages to make. The expression on his face is too terrible to look at, so she doesn’t.
“He kept that guitar his whole career — because it was you. The best version of you, one that didn’t talk or quarrel or disappoint him. One that played whenever and whatever he wanted. And you went to the grave with him, too.”
I told you, she wants to say. She wants to shake him and say, I TOLD you.
But that’s not entirely true, is it? She knew Ernesto’s love for Héctor was no match for his ambition, but of the two things Imelda knew could be true — that Héctor could be persuaded to abandon her, or that Ernesto would be willing to stoop to foul play — she’d picked the one that was easier to believe. And she’d been wrong.
This time, when she looks at him, he offers her a smile, although it’s less of a smile, really, than it is something that gashes his mouth to the side.
“He didn’t give me a chance, Imelda,” he says hoarsely. “To be — to be anything.”
“Yes, I know.”
They’re still standing at the crossing, the dead flowing around them on their way to and from everywhere else. Above their heads, someone flings open their shutters to switch out their hanging basket with a fresh one. Imelda looks at the golden-faced marigolds and suddenly barks a laugh.
“I’ve heard it, did I tell you that?” Her words clatter out of her. She drags the back of her hand across her eyes. “The song. You can’t help it, even when you ban all music. It still comes creeping in,” the way rats do, chewing through something no wider than a fingernail’s break in a sack of flour. “I should have recognized it — no, I did, I did recognize it, I knew it was yours. It had that, you know —“
She mimes the very specific laddering of fingers on a guitar.
“— that you loved to show off, I just …” She closes her eyes. “I assumed it was for you. That you wrote it, but it was a love song for him to sing to you.”
“Ach. Imelda.” His voice comes out muffled, and she knows without looking that he’s got a hand over his face. “It’s been butchered so often I think I’ve heard everything, but that’s a first. You’ve got to be the only one with that interpretation.”
“Me and Héctor del Rio.”
“You and Héctor del Rio,” he concedes.
“He would have gotten a kick out of it, I thought — performing to sold-out arenas, making women across Mexico swoon for a love song he sung because he wanted his best friend in his bed.”
She hears the wryness in her own voice, and something underneath it, something barely hinged and breaking. There’s an echo of it in Héctor’s voice when he laughs, like they’re both standing over the edge of something and throwing coins into a well, waiting to hear if they would hit bottom. It’s an awareness of a very long fall, a hope for clean water.
“I think now that wasn’t fair,” she says, from a long way up. “Any of it. I wasn’t fair to you, and I’m sorry.”
He inhales sharply, like he’d been hit, and —
She knows, suddenly, all at once, that while she’s spent the better part of a century wanting an apology from him, that maybe Héctor’s been waiting for one from her, too, and never thought he had the right to ask for it.
“It … was for Coco,” he tells her, in a voice as wobbly and barely held-together as the rest of him. “Every note of it, for Coco. Funny, isn’t it, that all my life I wanted to compose music, but the best thing I ever did I wrote when I realized, for the first time, that there was something more important —“
“— than music,” Imelda says.
“— than music,” Héctor finishes with her.
They look at each other. At last, they look at each other.
This time, when he reaches for her, touching her shoulder and the naked clavicle jutting into her throat, she gives way.
She steps into him and is ambushed, all at once, by a dozen versions of herself: she is eighteen and salted sore from crying, being held in the middle of the Consequela hacienda; she is nineteen, tucked under her husband’s arm while the cowboys finish La Llorona without their help; she is twenty, up against the wall under their Madonna, their Juárez, their own flyer, looking down at Héctor’s tousled head and her leg over his shoulder. Her body, her skin she doesn’t have, her heart that doesn’t exist, it all remembers this.
Oh, there you are, she thinks with a certain briskness, because it never went anywhere. All her love is still exactly where she left it.
Of course it is.
“Imelda,” Héctor says to her, low.
She aches, every part of her, and somehow — somehow she doesn’t hurt at all.
“My love,” she replies, lifting her head to his. And, “tell me, what color is the sky?”
He checks, her husband does, and something terribly fragile happens around the corners of his mouth. She presses in, wanting to do something contrary, like keep it.
Their arms go around each other, easily, without hesitation, like they were only waiting for the excuse. The sound their bones make as they settle is as soft as a sigh, like wood chimes in a gentle wind, like an old home settling into shape at last.
The household is woken right before dawn by the phone ringing.
Her eyes pop open, then narrow. She’s hated that machine from the moment they installed it. Its noises are unpredictable, unexpected, like a siren barreling into the peace and quiet of her home, but it’s much beloved by her younger dead. Rosita especially spends a lot of time wrapped up in its long cord as Paula hovers over the stove, listening to the one-sided conversation with her head tilted, smiling fondly.
Imelda’s up already, more or less, drowsing in her rocking chair under the painting of Guanajuato with its colorful San Juan Albán-esque buildings. It rings again, loud enough to make her start, grabbing for her Bible as it starts to slip from her lap. She sits up, shutting it and running her bony fingertips over the familiar cover. Coco had left it on the ofrenda for her early on. The spine’s cracked, pages beginning to come away from the chapter of Genesis she has loved all her life. She sets it back on her nightstand.
Downstairs, Rosita starts shouting.
She’s too far away for Imelda to make out the words, but as her voice comes closer, she hears the answering calls and thumps from the other rooms. She’s rousing the whole household.
What’s going on?
Pushing herself out of the rocking chair, Imelda fumbles for her hairpiece and her boots.
And then she hears it:
“— new arrival!” Rosita bellows. “It’s a new arrival!”
The empty space under her sternum heaves, then pulls in two separate directions at once.
There’s a moment, always, after the Department of Family Reunions has called you to tell you that someone has died and will be joining your household, that you expect the worst: something abrupt, untimely. Young and Sudden.
Please, Imelda thinks, tugging at the laces. Please not Luisa, please not the twins.
Not Miguel. Please.
She shakes out her skirts, goes to the mirror and straightens her hairpiece. Then she hauls the window open.
Everyone else is already gathering in the courtyard below. Victoria grabs her father as he goes past, hauling him around because he’s got his shirt buttoned wrong way up over his ribcage. Óscar and Felipe have raided the cellar; as they work on untangling the bunting, they hang the other decorations from Pepita’s horns for safekeeping. They’ve got one pinata that says IT’S A GIRL, the other A BOY, and a third that simply says CONGRATS ON YOUR NEW ARRIVAL. Obediently, Pepita holds still so as not to knock them off, rolling her eyes to see what the twins are doing.
A noise, behind her.
Imelda pulls her head back inside.
In the doorway, Rosita pauses. She knots her fingers together, then unknots them again. She is, and always has been, the most beautiful person in Imelda’s household, and even now, her eyes fold at the corners, tarnishing under the weight of their own kindness.
“Daughter,” she says, so very soft, and new arrivals are always announced by their relation to the head of house. “One hundred.”
Imelda’s whole world quakes, shifts an inch to the left, and permanently resettles there.
She breathes around it, slow.
“Did you call Soledad?” she asks.
Rosita says, “I left her a voicemail.”
And Imelda says, “I don’t know what that means.”
Everyone’s in the courtyard now — Óscar and Felipe, Victoria and Paula, Julio with his shirt turned the right way out — and as Rosita bustles off down the hall, Imelda twists her torso out the window, so she can shout up to the roof.
“Héctor!” There’s no way he’s missed the commotion below. “Come down!”
He does — foot first, the rest of his bones following a beat later. A few miss and have to bounce off the ledge below.
“Did you — ?” she starts.
“Yes, I heard.”
“Well, get your shoes on, then.”
He does, sitting down on the edge of the bed and fishing his good pair out from underneath it. The lovely brown guitar is also on his side of the bed, precariously close to falling, so he moves it to the chair. As he does, he compulsively drums his heels against the floor to test the Rivera make of them, a habit he hasn’t gotten tired of yet.
Spinning around, he catches Imelda by the waist as she tries to slip by. Without thinking about it, she puts her feet into mirroring position and so the step becomes a waltz, carrying them the rest of the way to the door.
“Imelda ... “ he starts, and then doesn’t seem to have any idea how to finish, so just says it again. “Imelda.”
Something peculiar, tender and soft, stirs in Imelda’s stomach.
She stops him just inside the shadow of the doorway. “I’m going to need to borrow this.”
“Yeah, sure,” says Héctor without hesitation. “Borrow — ?”
She touches his chin, the colorful design there. Once, it had been a scar the villistas gave him that he tried to grow a beard to hide.
Then she takes hold of it and leans up, catching a kiss off the bony ridge of his lower lip.
He startles, going still.
It’s only when he pulls back to stare at her, the same wide look in his eyes that certain songs give you, as astonishingly open as a great blue sky God lays across their country like a gift, that she realizes she hasn’t done that yet. That it has been one hundred years since she last kissed her husband.
“So long as you give it right back,” he says to her, hoarse, flayed raw, and she barely has time to grab onto him before he puts his hands under her jaw and pulls her up to his mouth. Her neck bends helplessly into it, one kiss, two, then three and four.
“Are you ready?” she murmurs.
They’re touching everywhere; mouths, eye sockets, the bridges of their temporal bones where their noses had once been. His hands clutch at her back. She stands on his feet.
“No,” he answers, with a very real fear. Then, “Wait. Yes. Are you?”
She closes her eyes, holding his face against her own. All of that love, years and years and years of it, patiently waiting for this arrival. It’s Coco’s, of course. It was always Coco’s. Coco is the blessing that made all the other blessings worth counting.
“Come on,” says Imelda Rivera to her husband Héctor. “The rest of the family’s waiting for us.”
Even this early in the morning, it’s busy in the Department of Family Reunions, and they’re all clustered in the corridor still waiting to be assigned a room when a door opens at the opposite end. In comes a slice of light from the glass atrium that falls to the floorboards, a case agent in a uniform hat, and an old woman smiling wryly up at him.
Coco’s got her head tilted, listening to him talk, and so doesn’t immediately see them and the way they come surging up out of the plastic waiting chairs at once, or — in Rosita’s case — sink into one.
Julio heaves a startled sob. Imelda reaches for him blindly, finds his shoulder, grips it hard.
She widens her eyes so as not to miss a thing: the long white braids, the soft cotton dress, the fuzzy pink slippers. The tattoos on her cheeks are swirls of turquoise and gold.
Behind her, Héctor makes a noise Imelda will never forget.
Then he shouts her name, and breaks into a sprint — dashes past the chairs, past the circulation desk with its Apple computers from 1995. Coco’s head comes up.
She sees him. Straightens. Gives her shawl a brisk shake.
“Oh,” she says, simply, in a tone of complete unsurprise — what you say to a thing you thought lost, found in the most reasonable place. “Papá.”
“There you are.”
And Héctor falls apart.
He drops his ribs mid-stride with a sound like a clattering marimba, and his shins go next, the rest bouncing and rebounding and leaving them behind, too eager to reach her to wait for it all to catch up, and Coco’s laughing as she gets down on her knees for the parts of him that get to her first: his arms, flung around her; their heads, pressed together.
She tries to gather him up, except he’s in too many pieces with no presence of mind to pull himself together and so it just turns into them, on the floor and holding onto each other, rocking and laughing and crying and awful and wonderful.
“Coco,” Héctor gets out, his voice breaking, heavy and so damn saturated with love.
Here you are. Here you are, at last.
And that love, it goes forward, and forward —
— and forward again, through all the ages and all the waiting saints.
And there above it stood the LORD, who said, “I am the LORD,
the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. […]
Wherever you go, know I am watching over you.
Know that I will bring you back to this land I have given you.
Know that until I have done what I have promised you,
I will not let you be lost or forgotten.”
- Genesis 28:13-15