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Work of All Saints

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WORK OF ALL SAINTS

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

-Atticus

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PART ONE: THE CLOUD FOREST

 

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

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

“That’s not yours!” she says sharply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I — uh —“

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

“Shhh!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Like that?”

He looks too, uncomprehending. “Sí?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The expression on his face freezes in place.

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

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

Still wearing her mother’s clothes.

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

Tío!” she bellows. “Tío —“

“Hey, hey — hey, no — !“

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

Imelda stares.

Tío!” she shouts, louder.

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

“In a dress,” Imelda says doubtfully.

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

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

Imelda folds her arms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Face burning, she whips her head back around.

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

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

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

“You are hopeless,” she says in wonder.

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

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

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

“Imelda,” she hears herself say.

He blinks. “Eh?”

“Imelda,” she says. “That’s my name.”

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

“Consequela.”

His eyebrows hike. “Truly?”

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right, okay,” says Padre Luis helplessly.

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

“This way,” she whispers to Héctor.

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

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

Imelda looks at him.

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

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

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

“Psst! Hey, Bernice!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another girl takes her place.

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

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

“What?”

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

Héctor makes another squashed-sounding noise.

“No,” says Bernice immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

The silhouette folds her arms and “hmph”s.

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

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

A pause.

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

Imelda looks at Héctor expectantly.

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

She waggles her fingers in wordless demand.

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

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

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

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

Héctor chokes.

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

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

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

“What?” Imelda says.

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imelda perked up. “We did?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Acoustics,” provides the other.

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

 

*

 

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

“But he took us,” Héctor points out.

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

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

 

*

 

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

Imelda spares it a bemused look, then glances up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I — what?”

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

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

“Was it you singing ‘Gloria’?”

“Yes, but …”

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

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

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

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

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

She scowls.

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

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

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

“Not — “

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

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

A voice suddenly shouts across the courtyard.

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

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

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

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

“Still working on them!”

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

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

Imelda turns her head to give him an exasperated look.

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

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

 

*

 

There’s only one thing for it.

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

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

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

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

“Ay,” she complains, and picks it up.

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

“Imelda!” says her brother Óscar.

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

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

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

“What is this?” Óscar asks.

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

“It was a hat.”

“Then it’s yours.”

“No, it’s yours.”

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

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

“Thank you, Imelda,” Óscar says.

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

“We’ll say the proper rites.”

“And bury it.”

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

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

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

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

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

Then she switches tracks.

“Have you gone to see the engineer recently?”

Her brothers blink, then exchange a furtive look.

“We might have stopped —“

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

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

Is their uncle mad, they mean.

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

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

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

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

In unison, they brighten.

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

“Where will you be?”

Imelda points. “Over there.”

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, that kind of light.

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

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

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

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

Imelda frowns. That sounds like innuendo. Gross.

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

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

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

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

“I — “

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

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

Imelda tries again. “Listen — “

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

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

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

It feels, alarmingly, almost like affection.

Stop that, she tells it, baffled.

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

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

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

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

“My brothers,” Imelda answers, gesturing.

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

What she gets is … not that.

“Ah,” she says, faintly.

Ernesto de la Cruz looks right back at her.

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

Imelda dug her nail in particularly hard.

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

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

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

She never thought of it as anything special.

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

Oh, she thinks.

That look — that’s for me.

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re valley boys, aren’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your accents,” she says.

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

“Do not!”

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

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

He points at her, like, gotcha!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She stares at him.

“What?” he says, in trepidation.

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

Irritatingly, Héctor just laughs.

“What? No, Ernesto’s not here.”

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

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

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

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

His teeth make a bright, startling appearance.

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

 

*

 

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imelda feels a commiserating stab.

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

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

The other girls try to protest.

“She’s not being indecent, doña —“

“Doña, please — !”

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

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

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

Ernesto de la Cruz blinks at her bemusedly.

“Imelda,” he says.

A beat passes.

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

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

Stinging, she looks past him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know what I mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?” Imelda says noncommittally.

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

Although —

She tilts her head, considering him.

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

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

She opens her mouth —

“There you are!” a voice shouts.

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

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

His eyebrows vault up.

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

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

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

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

Imelda!”

She startles.

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

“I beg your pardon, señor, I —“

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

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

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

“Hmm,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Héctor jogs his shoulders back at her.

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

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

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

“I …” she starts.

Héctor shakes himself all over, like an itchy dog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this — this she understands.

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

Unless —

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

Héctor Rivera loves Ernesto de la Cruz. Helplessly.

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anybody, that is, besides her?

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

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

“No reason,” Imelda says quickly.

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

There is something different about them, though.

Imelda can’t quite put her finger on it.

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attentive, see.

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

“May I borrow that?”

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

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

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

He sits down beside her, passing it back.

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

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

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

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

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

“This your favorite?” he asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God the Almighty?” he finishes.

Yes,” she says, just to be contrary.

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

“Musician or not — ” starts one.

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

“An unmarried Consequela.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ach,” Imelda says, with feeling.

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

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

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

Imelda lifts her head. Was that the cat?

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

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

“Sorry!” Imelda yelps in surprise.

Then:

“Wait — Ines?”

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

“What are you — ?”

“Shh!”

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

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

“What are we doing?”

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

Imelda frowns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, whose?”

“His. I could listen to it forever.”

”Ernesto?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Then — “

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

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

But Ines is done being interrogated.

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

“Ines …”

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

Imelda studies the hunchbacked shape she makes in the dark.

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

She gets up. “Come on,” she says.

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

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

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

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

“Ach.” Imelda rolls her eyes.

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

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

“Imeldita,” she says.

Imelda tilts her head. “Yes?”

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

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

“Ines … ?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ines breathes out, slow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

Here’s the worst part.

The absolutely awful, galling thing.

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

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

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

She asks people to repeat things a lot, now.

It’s infuriating.

It’s — it’s —

Well, you can probably imagine.

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

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

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

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

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

Imelda has never wanted anything like this before.

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

Is it her head, her heart?

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

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

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

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

“Ah,” she says, eloquently. “Good.”

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

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

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

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

Ach.”

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imelda listens to this exchange, bemused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, no —

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

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

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

His eyes widen in alarm. “Uh oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Imelda.”

And something in his tone makes her stop.

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

“Is that … what you do?”

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

He stops abruptly, then switches tracks.

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

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

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

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

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

And she sings.

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

 

*

 

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

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

Pepita rumbles in response, then tilts her head.

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

Pepita rumbles louder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey!” Imelda yelps.

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

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

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

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

She aims.

She reels her arm back.

Her pitch lands dead center.

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

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

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

Imelda lets her arm fall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Papá.”

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

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

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

“Just me.”

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

Imelda rolls her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imelda stiffens. He’s about to be cruel.

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

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

A pause.

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

Imelda ticks an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Is it the extra appendages?”

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

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

Héctor considers this.

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

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

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

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

Maria hmphs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t know how,” Rogir volunteers.

Héctor brightens.

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

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

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

Maybe that’s all dancing is, though.

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

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

Then —

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

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

“Ay — !“

“Sorry!”

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

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

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

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

Behind them, the children are openly laughing at them.

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

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

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

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

Oh, no. No, no.

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

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

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

She arches her eyebrows at him.

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

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

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

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

Héctor scratches his chin, contemplates it.

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

I don’t think anyone did, Imelda thinks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Imelda,” Héctor says suddenly.

“What?”

“Señorita,” he says.

What?” Imelda says.

“Can I borrow something?”

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

She doesn’t look back. “What is it?”

“A kiss,” he says.

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

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

One side of his mouth dimples at her.

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

Imelda says nothing. She can’t.

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

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

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

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

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

Imelda doesn’t wait to hear it.

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

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

Oh.

Oh, oh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He blinks.

“Oh,” comes out of him, very faint.

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Face like a horse.”

“Oh. Ines? My prima Ines?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Little sister,” adds her brother Felipe.

“But we know where to find you.”

“We wouldn’t waste your time.”

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

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

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

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

“Not interested in that, either.”

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

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

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

The twins exchange a look.

“I don’t know,” Felipe says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“AY!”

Imelda curses, and recoils.

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

And at the center of it all —

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

Ah, Imelda thinks.

Of course.

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

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

He clasps his hands to his heart.

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

And laughter ripples through the gathered Consequelas.

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

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

Imelda scratches the end of her nose.

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They all glance at each other and shrug.

“Ask the marigolds,” they tell him.

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

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

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

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

The swimmers pound on the table.

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

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

A third blinks. “We will?”

“Oh, good idea —”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Héctor flashes her a smile that’s all teeth.

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

“Oh, psh,” she says, amused.

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

“Ay, primas, come dunk him!”

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

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

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

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

Then he takes a deep breath, and dives.

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

Hey — !”

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

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

— and that probably would have been that.

If not for Ernesto.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

Of course it was.

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

Traveling. Yeah, traveling!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh.

Best not to look at that too closely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Héctor blinks, surprised and oddly touched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’re all skeletons, too.

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

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

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

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

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

Well. To the bone.

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

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

His brothers. His sisters.

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

He shifts his cheek against hers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A beat. “How did I get so lucky?”

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

Probably by something gross, like affection.

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

“God’s loss,” he says.

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

His elbow nudges against her bare one, deliberately.

“Do you have one?” he wants to know.

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

His eyebrows hike up. “I would!”

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

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

“Oh,” says Imelda.

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

Her face burns. She’d thought …

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

It does start a habit, though.

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

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

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

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

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

Shh, there are innocent ears present!

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you supposed to?”

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

But none of that is out of the norm.

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

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

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

What is there to be ashamed of, here?

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gelding whinnies demandingly.

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

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

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

She can feel Héctor shaking with the effort of holding her up. She slides her hand across his shoulder, tucking her thumb under the strap of his suspenders, which have gone slack since his pants are — not clipped in. Carefully, she hikes herself up, trying to take some of her weight from him.

His jaw clenches under her fingers. The drag reminds her how close they’d both been, before the interruption.

“No, not that — “ and something heavy hits the ground, further down the stables, followed by loud clanking, and a curse.

Héctor widens his eyes at her, warning.

She shakes her head. No — ! She’s not trying to do anything, she’s just trying to help. He doesn’t get to be a donkey about it, who’s the one who hasn’t gone soft yet, because it’s not her —

Annoyed now, she tightens her grip on his shoulders and does it again, deliberately. The wood at her back sighs.

The whites of Héctor’s eyes show.

She bends her head, presses her mouth to the back of her hand where it’s still covering his.

One beat, and another, and his eyelashes flutter. He moves his lips against her palm, and tilts his head so their foreheads bump together on the next little thrust. As willing to trust her as the day they broke into the convent, before they knew each other at all. Hasn’t stopped trusting her — even here, even now.

And just like that, she’s there.

No! she thinks at her body in alarm. Don’t! Not now!

Héctor realizes what’s happening in the same moment: his grip turns hard with renewed terror, shaking his head urgently enough to dislodge her hand, and she tries to hold herself still — if there’s no friction, she won’t — but it’s too late, she’s already falling.

This part, Imelda thinks, has always felt like the moment an egg yolk bursts; a startled pouring rush of feeling, a taste behind her teeth.

Her thighs shake, and then stop holding her altogether. Héctor stumbles, caught by the abrupt shift in their center of gravity and trying to brace their weights —

— a scuffle, precarious tipping —

— and someone’s boot bangs hard against the stall as they tumble down, making the whole line rattle.

She hits the ground. Her teeth scissor into her tongue.

Shit!

Oh, shit.

A loud snort comes from the gelding on the end. He kicks back, sending the stalls swaying the other direction, to the annoyance of the mares who vocalize it.

“Settle down, settle down,” says her uncle’s voice incuriously.

Imelda and Héctor stay absolutely, paralyzingly still, sprawled where they fell. Héctor’s eyes are a wide smear of reflected light in the gloom, his clothes in disarray, and Imelda’s body tingles with her rapidly-fading rush. Her ears buzz with terror.

“— we go,” she hears, and a grunt from her uncle as he heaves something jangling and heavy over his shoulders.

His boots scuff down the aisle.

The door creaks.

And … he’s gone.

With identical groans of relief, they sag against each other. Imelda lets her head fall back against the dirt, momentarily not even caring about hay. Talk about compromising positions!

Héctor untangles himself from her and stands up.

“You didn’t …” Imelda says, because he’s tucking himself away. “You’re not still …”

He jerks his chin at her, indignant.

“My life just flashed in front of my eyes!” he hisses. “I was imagining just how painful my imminent death was going to be!”

Laughing, Imelda accepts his hand up and shakes her skirts out.

“You know,” she says, lifting her eyebrows, “some people find that sort of danger …”

“Not me!” he flashes at her. “You’re loco!”

She starts laughing for real: helplessly, soundlessly, with her whole body, and as she starts to double over he grabs her around the waist to hold her up, shaking his head.

The expression on his face is incredulous, wondering, and indescribably fond, and Imelda feels altogether strange about it, like if you took her and peeled her off like an orange rind, there he’d be underneath, visible in the pulp of her.

Héctor Rivera has, in short order, become one of the most important people in her life.

 

*

 

The announcement comes in on the next train: an election’s been called. All men of property will vote.

It’s Venustiano Carranza against nobody important, if Carranza can stay alive that long. The string of bodies between him and Mexico’s last legitimate president (1911, with Díaz, if you ask anyone else. 1872, with Juárez, if you ask in Oaxaca,) is frankly alarming. The life expectancy of a man who wants to be president of Mexico shortens considerably the moment he takes office.

“Think about it, though,” Ernesto says wistfully. “What that would be like — playing in the city.”

“Mexico City?” Imelda mumbles, her eyes half-lidded and lazy. “Where all the armies converge? Who in their right mind wants to go there? No, thank you.”

He scuffs a look off of her, like he’s contemplating being offended, but it isn’t worth the effort.

“What,” he says back, “you want to stay here and play in the plaza all your life?”

The plaza is nothing, he means.

They’re the best thing in the plaza, and everyone knows it.

It wasn’t that long ago she was too afraid to even approach the gazebo and the mariachi, and now here she is. When she sings, everyone stops to listen: the musicians and their instruments, the innkeeper at the end of the plaza and the boys throwing slops, the nuns on horseback coming back up the trails. Even the cathedral goes still to hear them better; not even the birds move among the buttresses.

“I’m not tired of it yet,” she says, but even as she says it, she wonders if that means that Héctor and Ernesto are tired of it.

The election announcement was made in Mass that morning, and tasked with polishing the organ pipes, Imelda, Héctor, and Ernesto have been in the loft ever since.

It started out serious enough, and then dissolved into them prying the casing up so that they could see the inner workings, the bellows and couplers, and making Ernesto sit on the bench and play various combinations to see how it all came together. They know that sometimes Padre Luis sends for a man from Oaxaca City to do tuning and maintenance, since that’s much too complicated to trust to the choir kids. But a damp environment like San Juan Albán isn’t good for any instrument.

Imelda feels a lot like she’s getting away with something, being left alone with them, even though there’s no question of propriety. They’re visible from the nave, Ernesto’s with them, Padre Luis or any of the nuns can come up the stairs at any time. Nothing to see here.

Maybe it’s because they’re definitely just lounging now. Ernesto still on the bench, moving his feet across the pumps and matching his hands to the right keyboard; Héctor stretched out on their Sunday coats, drowsing, one arm lazily slung over Imelda’s hips; Imelda herself, idly twirling a lock of hair around her finger, feeling no urgent need to move.

(“But it’s Sunday,” she can already hear Héctor saying in his wheedling way. “We’re resting.”)

“Didn’t you try that before?” she ventures, quirking an eyebrow.

“Try what?” Ernesto says.

“Running away to the city?”

Héctor runs his fingers over her stomach, back and forth. It was nice at first, but now he’s got this pinched look on his face, contemplative and worried, watching his own thumb move across her blouse, and that makes it … a little weird.

She picks his hand up and shoves it back at him.

“It’ll be different now,” Ernesto says, like it’s that easy. “We’ll have you with us this time.”

Which is flattering, but —

“My family will never let that happen,” she reminds them. “An unmarried woman, traveling to who-knows-where with two mariachi? Not likely.”

They glance at each other.

“Then marry one of us,” Héctor says matter-of-factly.

Imelda snorts.

“No,” he sits up. “I’m serious, Imelda. Marry one of us, and we’ll go. They can’t stop you once you’re married, right — because you belong to a husband’s household then, not theirs?”

She shrugs equivocally. When marrying off valuable assets like his daughters or nieces, Don Consequela usually got around giving them up by assimilating the husband into the household instead, either by employing him or holding wedding debt over his head. If her uncle caught wind Héctor and Ernesto wanted her to leave the mountains with them, she doesn’t doubt he would try something similar.

They seem to be waiting for an answer, though.

Discouragingly, she says, “In theory.”

Héctor wrings his hands. Again, he skitters a nervous look at Ernesto, who makes a “carry on” motion.

“Would you … like to marry one of us?” he presses, tentative. “Me, maybe?”

Imelda frowns.

He glances left, then right, and she takes the opportunity to wipe her palms on her skirts. They’re strangely clammy.

“You’re not joking?” she checks.

“I’m not joking,” Héctor promises, and the clamminess spreads to the rest of Imelda’s body.

This seems entirely too unreal a conversation to have here, under the gleaming pipes of an organ with the smell of silver polish in her nose, in full view of the cross — but then again, maybe this is the perfect place. She needs God here, as her witness.

Next she speaks, she’s proud of how casual she manages to sound.

“Okay, but. Do you want to get married to me?”

Héctor tries to grab her hand and scoot in next to her at the same time; the combined enthusiasm of both nearly tips him to the floor.

Rapidly, he says, “Yes, yes, if you’ll have me — if you’ll let me — if your uncle will let you. Ernesto, you said you’d marry her too, right?”

“Yeah, sure,” says Ernesto, watching them carefully.

“There you go,” Héctor nods so emphatically it uses his whole body. “I want to marry you, he’s the better catch, you can pick based on what you need and then we’ll be free to go!”

He gestures and offers her that smile, the one that’s more teeth than sense.

And insight ambushes Imelda from the side, and her heart trips, hard, inside her chest, because they’ve discussed this. This is something they’ve agreed on, that Héctor might ask for Imelda’s hand and be rejected on the grounds that he’s too poor, too skinny, too much of some things and not enough of everything else, and that Ernesto, who no one in their right minds would reject if he came asking for their most throw-away daughter, volunteered to marry her so that Héctor could keep her close.

That she would be Ernesto’s wife in name, Héctor’s wife in practice, and that’s how the three of them would stay together.

She blinks at them, fast. Her heart’s plastered to the back of her throat, rolled flat.

“But … you can’t undo it. If it doesn’t work out, you can’t take it back.” She looks back and forth between them, letting Héctor anxiously squeeze her knuckles. “That’s a big risk to take just because you want me to sing with you in the city.”

Héctor bites his lip.

Behind him, Ernesto looks unperturbed.

“Well, I’m not going to marry anyone else,” he announces — but to Héctor, and in that significant voice they use with each other sometimes, when they think they’re being subtle.

“Yes, but I don’t want to marry you,” Imelda tells him shortly. “That’s a lot to ask of me. Once it’s done, I can’t take any of it back, either, you know.”

“You don’t have to,” Héctor backpedals. “It just seemed like a solution —“

“When would you want to leave?”

Héctor and Ernesto have a brief argument conducted entirely with their eyebrows. They frown.

“Next year, when the cloud lifts,” Héctor says, simultaneous with Ernesto’s, “Spring.”

Imelda’s eyebrows join the argument, making a spirited leap for her hairline.

They aren’t talking some weekend excursion, then, or to tour the way she knows some mariachi bands do. They mean to leave, permanently.

“That’s …” comes out of her, faint. “So soon.”

She’s eighteen. Her family likes Héctor because he works very hard at being likable, but bringing him up as a marriage prospect? She’s afraid they’ll laugh. Worse, she’s afraid it’ll drive her uncle to snag the next qualified man who steps off the train and hitch her to him instead.

(Honestly, she’s afraid that’ll be her fate either way. But not at eighteen. Please, not yet.)

The silence stretches. Ernesto scuffs his feet against the worn-down tracks in the wood around the bench, and Héctor laces their fingers together.

It’s such a peculiar, weighty silence that Imelda frowns, turns her head.

Héctor peeks at her hesitantly.

“You will have to get married soon, I think,” he tells her, very quiet. “Regardless.”

Imelda pulls her hand away.

“It doesn’t have to be to me, or to Ernesto,” he tilts his head. “Promise, we won’t make you. You can wait to see who your uncle will pick out for you — somebody more certain, less — odd. You can stay with your family. I’m just —“

“Don’t be stupid,” and she sounds vicious, even to her own ears. She doesn’t know what’s going on. “Don’t insult me.”

He takes a deep breath.

“My mother,” he starts, “was in a … delicate condition most of my life. One baby after another, so it goes.”

He twirls his hand around, quick, to stop her from saying anything, but Imelda’s not dense. She’s seen the drawings he leaves on Papá Figaro’s ofrenda in November, for lack of any photographs, has heard Ernesto refer to it casually before — the bad water and the dysentery that wiped out the rebel camp in Santa Cecilia, took all but Héctor and his father, who could not look at Héctor for a second after that without mourning every child who would have turned out better. Héctor had been an orphan long before the man died, a fact none of the other orphans let him forget, that they had to take the name of the cross but he got to keep his name and it didn’t make him better.

“What I’m saying is … I know what the signs are, Imelda.”

Something very strange happens in the vicinity of her stomach, a sensation like a sudden acceleration and an equally abrupt halt.

She’s on her feet without being aware of it, goes to the railing and puts her hands out for balance. She looks down at the pews, the cupola and the gold-gilt portraits of the saints, the single sanctuary light always burning. Somebody’s moving inside the room with the baptismal font — Padre Luis, maybe, or one of the nuns.

Above them, Imelda’s world is upended, everywhere.

“You think,” she says slowly. There’s a noise in her ears, like string instruments tuned perilously high. “You think I’m with child?”

“I … yes. I think you could be.”

Unbidden, her hand goes to her stomach, flattening over the same spot Héctor had been feeling. The skin there is tight, drawn up hard as a nut, which isn’t something stomachs typically do and it’d crossed her mind once or twice to be concerned, but … she’d figured it was something she ate, or some unpleasant new quirk of her monthlies.

She grits her teeth, rounding her shoulders so neither of them can see her expression.

How could he recognize this about her before she did?

But how was she supposed to know? She was never taught!

“And — that’s why we’re talking about marriage, suddenly,” she gets out. “I’ve got to get married. Soon — no, indecently soon. And — and I’m going to be one of those girls, the ones who’ve got to pretend to be very surprised by their premature delivery.”

She barks out a laugh and immediately smothers it, because she hadn’t meant to sound so hysterical.

A baby, though!

Her skin’s hardening up because she’s growing a — a —

Héctor’s still being tentative. “That’s … why we wanted you to have options. For yourself, and your child.”

My child?” she flashes, indignant, and rounds on him. “It’s yours, too! I didn’t do this all on my own, for heaven’s sake, you spineless — ”

He scrambles to his feet, turns his ankle in their coats and nearly topples, but rights himself with a little hop.

“Mine, and yours,” he says to her, catching her and gathering her close. “Mine and yours, Imelda, hey, hey, it’s okay.”

“It’s not okay!”

“It’s okay, look at me, look at me,” his voice goes liquid, musical, and he leans in, pressing their foreheads together so she’s got nowhere else to look but at him, his eyes turned cyclopsian between hers. His smile’s all teeth — she still hasn’t told him it’s not as winsome as he thinks. “It’s ours. Mi amor, Imelda. Ours. Imelda, will it have dimples, do you think? Ernesto, do you think it will have dimples?”

“Don’t look at me,” Ernesto says dryly, watching them from the bench, his legs crossed. “I’m not involved.”

“I want it to have dimples,” Héctor says, adamant.

Don’t — !”

Imelda can’t think that far ahead, she can’t. She doesn’t want to. She’s having enough trouble processing what’s here, what’s now.

Except —

Except she’s never wasted time on anything, not when she truly wanted it, not when it was hers to have, when it wasn’t scraps handed down to her from a dozen other people.

She grabs Héctor by his ears.

“Héctor,” she says to him seriously. “Héctor Rivera, will you marry me.”

She’s got him bent towards her, a little too far to be comfortable, and he’s got too much arm, too much leg, too much rib, all of him disproportionate no matter how they tailor Ernesto’s cast-offs to hide it, and it’s ridiculous, he’s ridiculous, and —

— and Imelda forgets all of that at the look on his face.

“I would marry you tomorrow, I’d go wherever you want, and I will never take it back,” he promises her, and the voice he’s using is the one where he doesn’t even think of dressing it up.

No fibs, no embellishments, no wheedling or persuasion — just Héctor, and honesty.

“Okay,” she says, brilliantly.

He smiles, and pulls her up against him, and kisses her with that smile, with God and Ernesto as his witnesses.

 

*

 

Ernesto comes with him, because Ernesto at twenty-one can pass for a man much older if he wears his clothes right and carries his shoulders a certain way. He lends Héctor more gravitas than Héctor would have had on his own.

They call on Imelda’s uncle to negotiate — well, to negotiate a wedding pact, but to Imelda it feels more like a bargain hunt. She might as well be one of the horses; the business of securing a bride and the business of securing a horse contain a lot of the same language. She’s left feeling sick to her stomach.

As she feared, as soon as it occurs to him that someone might actually find value in Imelda, her uncle tightens his grip.

“The only daughter of my youngest brother?” he stalls, like he isn’t darting her piggish little looks out of the corner of his eye, wondering if he’s miscalculated her worth — a look Imelda would recognize blindfolded. He never imagined she would be anyone’s first choice. How he can correct the oversight and still come out with a profit? “I cannot go to the ofrenda and tell him I let his daughter have anything but the very best, and that includes husbands, músicolitos.”

Don Consequela puts one arm around her shoulders and drags her up against his side, and it’s like beating leather that’s been in the sunshine for hours: there’s a puff of sour smell that Imelda doesn’t hold her breath in time to avoid.

Her reaction is as visceral as it is sudden.

Eighteen years of her life rise up at once and take her throat in a stranglehold, and Imelda hates her uncle so much she cannot stand it.

She doesn’t know what her face does, she isn’t making a single attempt to hide it, but whatever it is, Héctor and Ernesto’s expressions change like someone’s flipped a coin.

Once, when Imelda was small, all the children in San Juan Albán made paper cuitlaxochitl to decorate the altar with on Christmas Eve. She’d touched the five-pointed red leaves, the cluster of paper-ball berries in its center, and listened to the priest tell the story of Pepita, who’d been too poor to offer a proper tribute at baby Jesus’s manger and offered him the weeds she’d seen and liked, only to find the next day that they’d bloomed into pointsettas. Imelda looked at the flower, then at the altar, and decided Jesus probably had enough, and wouldn’t begrudge letting her keep this one pretty thing, and stole it.

Her aunt found it, of course, crushed under her pillow a month or two later, and whirled on her with a shout to smack her —

And Óscar and Felipe stepped in.

She doesn’t recall the specifics of what they said, only that she could count on one hand the occasions in which her brothers actually protected her, and this was one of them. Usually they were the ones getting her into trouble, but this time they made up a story on the spot to get her out of it, all because she wanted something nice for herself for once and they recognized that in her.

The same thing happens here.

She sees them turn something on: they stop being Héctor and Ernesto, and start being Héctor-and-Ernesto, the double-act, who charmed nuns and shopkeepers and convinced Papá Figaro of all people to accept two music students for the price of one.

“Now, don, look here,” Ernesto starts, speaking slowly.

Imelda feels the moment it solidifies into place inside of her, like crust on bread.

She wants to belong to them, she wants them to belong to her, more than she ever wants to belong to Casa Consequela.

Taking a deep breath, she folds them up with her eyes, tucks them close to her heart, and turns under her uncle’s arm to join them, becoming the third part of their act. She steals them, to keep them for herself.

 

*

 

She gets her wedding date.

One week after Christmas, right before the Epiphany.

Imelda hopes that’ll be soon enough. Until the … until it quickens, and gives them an idea of how big it’s gotten, she won’t know when it’s due.

“When did your monthlies stop?” asks the newest wife of her male cousin, the one Imelda sang for at her wedding.

“They haven’t,” Imelda says shortly. “But they’re … spotty, off and on, and I couldn’t tell you when I first noticed the change.”

This earns her a frown, and a, “I don’t like the sound of that.”

Imelda likes having her around, up until she doesn’t. She’s a sharp-eyed woman, clever and engaging and exactly the kind of asset her uncle would want to sequester for the household, and Imelda, who barrels into everything like a bull because she has to, isn’t sure what to do with her.

In short order, though, she’s overtaken by Imelda’s mother, her aunts, all her primas. There’s no keeping a secret from any of them; they turned up as soon as it got out that Imelda was in trouble.

They spend a stupid amount of time talking around each other. As soon as she parses through the euphemisms and realizes what they’re asking her, she brushes them off. “Oh, that,” she says with impatience. “Yes, of course I did that.”

And then looks around at their shocked faces.

“Why?” says her Tía María Rosa, horrified.

“Because I didn’t know!” Imelda retorts. “There didn’t seem to be any good reason not to. It was fun, it didn’t cost any money, we liked it, I had no idea it was … it was going to … that you were going to blame me.”

It’s a struggle to keep her voice from wavering when all her female relatives are standing around her like gladiators in judgment.

Well, mostly. Ines just looks confused.

“What’s supposed to be fun?” she whispers.

Her other primas shout over her.

“We warned you,” they wail at her. “Discharge milky white, don’t go out at night!”

I did that, Imelda wants to complain, because no one told her the connection between the two, and she’d never made a habit of leaving the compound after dark anyway, but she definitely didn’t if it was the time of month her underthings were stained white instead of red. She obeyed that rule, and in the afternoon she put her legs around Héctor’s waist without a second thought.

Another prima tosses her braid and huffs.

“What did you think we were talking about when we warned you, again and again, about being alone with men?”

“That he would kill me,” Imelda says promptly. “Like Deremé’s mother. That he would slam his fist into my face, Tía, and I would have to tell everyone I hit myself doing the washing.” She makes eye contact with her uncle’s wife, the head of household. She holds it.

To her shock, it is Señora Consequela who looks away first.

“I thought you were worried about my life. I didn’t think my — my — modesty deserved the same level of protection. Or more, apparently, since I’ve never had this much of your attention at once.”

One or two of the women have the decency to look ashamed, and in the back, the new wife looks at her with a sudden sharp-eyed wily look.

But then her mother stands. She swells, incarnadine with rage.

For the first time, guilt begins to curdle in Imelda’s stomach. From the moment she was thrust upon Don Consequela’s mercy, young and freshly widowed, her mother had to work twice as hard, be twice as unobtrusive, just so that her children had a chance of being treated roughly as equal as their pure-bred Consequela cousins. She just had to see Óscar, Felipe, and Imelda through to adulthood — the twins with their opportunities, Imelda with her virginity intact. And with one slip, Imelda threw all of that out the window.

No wonder Doña Flores looks ready to hit her with a shoe.

“You, perhaps,” she starts, in a deadly voice. “But he should have known better.”

“How!” Imelda fires back, exasperated. “He has no parents, no godparents, nothing but nuns and Papá Figaro, when was he supposed to get this education that none of you bothered to give me?”

“And this — this is why we keep our girls chaperoned,” Tía María Rosa remarks to no one in particular. “How come even behind guarded walls we can’t keep them in check.”

“It’s not my fault!” Imelda snaps, and knows at once from the outbreak of disapproving murmuring that no one believes that.

The new wife has to raise her voice to be heard above it all.

“I don’t like that she’s still bleeding,” she tries, but nobody pays her any mind.

This sets the tone for the next several days, until a cousin’s husband catches the reins tossed to him and as he enters into the paddock asks jokingly, “Say, why are you all treating niñita Imelda like she is the dog that tore up your shoes?” and her primas close rank around her.

She might be the embarrassing example they hold up to make themselves look pristine in comparison, but she is their embarrassment. No one else’s!

 

*

 

“I want to talk to your engineer.”

Her brothers lift their heads, then exchange a look.

“He’s not our engineer —” Óscar starts to say, but Imelda cuts him off with a rude noise, crossing the room and checking the bed for any pointy tools or toys before flopping down on top of it.

“You’ve attended almost every lecture he’s given for years, including that weird one about the little machines in our bodies — gérmenes? Bactolio?”

“Bacteria,” Felipe corrects.

“Where engineering meets biological science,” Óscar interjects, primly.

“Yes, that’s what I said. At this point he probably owes you his firstborn child.”

Sitting cross-legged on the carpet, their pants rolled to their knees because the kitchen below makes this room a sweltering pit, always, her brothers exchange another look. They’ve managed to sell almost all of their mobiles, and have moved on to artesanía wind-up toys. The shelves around their room are crowded with projects in progress; dancers in regional dress, frogs and horses, and alebrije, too. The one in Óscar’s hand is a toad with big bull’s horns and a purple speckled belly, its back half-coated in yellow paint. Felipe holds out a magnifying glass so Óscar can get the spots just right.

He sets it down. “What do you need him for?”

“He’s been wanting to engineer instruments for the maestro, hasn’t he?” Imelda affects a shrug. “Do you think I could commission him?”

With what money, she expects them to ask, but the twins are quicker on the uptake than that: their eyebrows fly up.

“You’re going to use your bride money —“

“— to commission an instrument from the engineer?”

They look at her with identical, bug-eyed looks of disbelief, their mouths as flat as the alebrije toad’s.

“Is that wise?” they ask.

Swinging herself upright, she scoots to the end of the bed and opens her mouth to speak, but the thing inside of her makes itself known suddenly. Imelda closes her eyes, rests her hand on her stomach, waits for the nausea to pass.

(She doesn’t like to think about it. This is the body she has to occupy. If a baby takes it over from the inside out, then where will she go?)

“Listen,” she says, when she feels she can speak without her lunch lurching. “That money is mine, it’s the only value I have to my name. But there’s no way our uncle with let me take any currency into my marriage, not when he can find a way to keep it in his own pocket.”

This, Óscar and Felipe accept without question.

The fog comes, the fog goes, but their uncle will always be the slimiest person you’ll meet in a day.

“So I need to turn it into something. Something with just as much value. Tío Consequela has no use for a musical instrument, but if Héctor and I had a good one, we could make a living off of it, independently of our family. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

Neither Héctor nor Ernesto own the instruments they bring to play in the plaza — it’s part of why they got in so much trouble when they ran away last year. They’re stuck until they can buy something.

But if Héctor owned one, debt-free …

It would change everything.

Her brothers must see some of this on her face, because they straighten up and look at each other for a long time.

The conversation they have is wordless, conducted almost entirely with their eyebrows, shoulders, hands. Imelda waits — she grew up around this. Or, more accurately, outside of it. It’s probably why Héctor and Ernesto’s closeness doesn’t bother her the way it does the other musicians, sometimes, because she’s already seen it.

They round on her.

“If you bring us a design, Imelda,” says her brother Felipe.

“We’ll take it to the engineer,” says her brother Óscar.

 

*

 

It’ll have to be a guitar, because it’s the most versatile to play, and it’s the instrument Héctor knows best.

“Are you certain?” the twins ask her, just to be safe. “You don’t want to keep it, for … for baby things?”

“If we have our own way to earn money, we can buy our own baby things,” Imelda answers with more confidence than she feels. And, quieter, “yes, I’m sure. Even if I didn’t have my own reasons, I would still want to do this.”

“Why?”

And really, there’s only one answer to that.

“Because I love him,” Imelda says.

She looks at her brothers, who look back. She scrunches her nose up. It’s the truth: she doesn’t know what else to say.

A beat, and then Óscar and Felipe peel their lips off their teeth.

“Gross,” they say.

“I know!” Imelda wails in agreement, and they all start laughing. “I don’t know where it came from!”

“We always thought people were just making it up. That everyone was just pretending to have those feelings, and everyone was indulging them by believing it.”

“It’s either that or go crazy.”

“It’s nice to see it proved true, right in front of us. Embarrassing, but nice.”

“Thanks,” says Imelda from where she’s got her head buried in her hands, but she can hear them smiling.

“We’ll build the guitar, Imelda.”

“The engineer will guide us, but we’ll do the construction. We want you to carry that with you.”

“You’re still gross, though.”

“Whatever,” says Imelda.

So she takes a leaf from their book and goes to the music school after she’s done in the stables, figuring they’d appreciate it if she took notes for them.

She expects to be stopped, interrogated, but to her surprise, she walks all the way through the compound and nobody questions her. She sits in the instrument room with her braid pulled forward over her shoulder, in a loose blouse tugged out as much as she dares to hide the subtle way she’s been rounding out, and draws different body shapes while the marimba players gossip in the corner.

It’s like her presence among them is undisputed. She scrunches her toes in her boots, delighted by that thought.

Ernesto passes through with three of the wind instruments, and does a double-take when he spots her. But he recovers and tips her a nod, turning to follow the others back out.

Impulsively, she calls out to stop him.

He turns. “Yes?”

He checks behind him, then looks back to her, eyebrows ticked up in surprise. Almost all their interactions to date have been done through Héctor — like papel picado, her friendship with Ernesto is so flimsy it falls apart in the rain. They’ve never worked at it.

“Come here and look at this,” she says. “Tell me what you think it needs.”

He approaches, and she turns the twins’ workbook towards him. He looks down at it, expression inscrutable.

“It’s a commission,” she blurts, then bites her tongue.

“This is …” he starts, lifting the page and then letting it slip down the side of his finger. “For Héctor, yes? You’re commissioning an instrument for Héctor.”

“Yes,” says Imelda.

“A guitar. This is not … an inexpensive thing.”

“No.”

“This is going to cost you more than you can justify spending.”

“Yes.”

Imelda can hear the bite of impatience in her voice. She doesn’t need Ernesto to tell her what she’s already told herself. She needs to focus on this project; it’s more real to her than her impending motherhood. She needs him to tell her something useful.

He lifts his eyes and boggles at her.

“You’re crazy about him,” he whispers, like he’d never considered it a possibility. It’s a revelation — no, it’s an accusation.

And that’s —

That is the most hypocritical thing anyone has ever said to her.

Imelda flares up, a matchstick struck.

I’m crazy?” she hisses, struggling to keep her voice down, acutely aware they’re not alone in the room. “If I’m crazy, then you — you should be certified!”

His eyebrows spring up acrobatically.

Me?”

Imelda huffs. “Yes, you! I think I like him a reasonable amount, compared to you!”

“I’ve never done anything like this!” Ernesto gestures at the workbook.

“He gives you everything,” she snaps, fast as a backhanded slap. “He stands back and lets you have everything. He deserves to have nice things, too. I wanted him to have that, for once — to be put first.”

His mouth works, forming shapes and letting them dissolve.

This hadn’t occurred to him either, apparently. All these years, she’s willing to bet, and he’s never stopped to notice. Of course not.

“He has nice things,” he manages, feebly.

“Oh? What have you given him recently?”

“Don’t be stupid,” says Ernesto de la Cruz. “I gave him you.”

Imelda barks an ugly laugh, caught off guard by the audacity of it, the idea that she could be given, and she’s still laughing when Ernesto cuts her a look, low across the throat.

He says, “If I wanted you gone, you’d be gone.”

And slowly, her laughter dies off.

“Why aren’t I?”

He tilts his head, blinks, and the expression clears. “He’s my family. I want him to be happy, we’re practically brothers.”

A smile wrenches Imelda’s mouth to one side.

She says, “That’s not the word for it.”

What follows next is the most charged moment of her life. Imelda’s seen injured travelers lifted by human chain up steep paths with no certain footholds. She’s seen uncles bucked from the backs of stallions, seen the moment the horse decided whether or not to put a hoof through a weak human skull. None of it felt half as dangerous as this — this moment here.

Her heartbeat thunders in her throat.

They stare at each other, unblinking, reptilian. Snakes coiled in the dirt.

Yes, the look says. Yes, we’re on the same page. Yes, we’re talking about exactly what you think we’re talking about.

Now who will strike first? Imelda — or Ernesto? Either would be fatal, and maybe this is why they’ve hardly ever interacted without Héctor there. You don’t step on something that will kill you.

Ernesto’s throat moves. His lips purse, then part.

“Fortunately,” he says, smooth as anything. “I do not want you gone. Believe me — believe me when I tell you that there is no one who wants you in his life more than me. Now,” he glances down at the guitar on the page, and Imelda exhales, shuddering and slow. “What was your question?”

 

*

 

Later, when Imelda looks back, up to that point she and Ernesto had been merely tolerating each other. But they stop, after that. Some things you can’t go through without becoming friends, and loving another person so much you pass right through jealousy into unbelievably stupid is one of those things.

 

*

 

This lasts until December, because liturgical seasons don’t stop for war or love or money and the choir needs changing for Advent. Her cousins’ children start asking about Christmas, because Christmas means Las Posada, which means singing and, more importantly, treats. Imelda’s charged with keeping them occupied so they don’t bother the aunties in the kitchen. She herds them around, makes them fold paper poinsettias for the cathedral’s Guadalupe shrine.

Everyone else is angling to be sent to the seaside markets in Veracruz. It’s the only time of year the Consequelas willingly ride the train.

They’ll take it all the way to Puerto Mexico, where the ships come in from the Caribbean Islands, from New Orleans, and even sometimes from Africa, a place that to Imelda sounds like someone just made it up, like Timbuktu or Canada. She’s never see the sea, and neither have Óscar or Felipe.

When Mariano Consequela went in 1896, back when Puerto Mexico still had its Aztec name, Coatzacoalcos, he brought back lilies the size of his head to decorate the nave, and a church orphan with big box braids and a ward’s name, Flores, who’d dropped the Star of Bethlehem on him — they were going to get married, though they didn’t know it yet.

Thanks to the train, you can get there and back again in a day, although these days you’ve got the carrancistas to contend with. Don Consequela has supported Carranza his whole campaign, one wealthy man to another, and thinks it shouldn’t be any trouble if he sends his men to do it.

They leave after Mass that Sunday, and Imelda stands with the children to wave them off, to keep them distracted from the girls set up on blankets at the end of the platform, selling their tamales and their dime-sized gorditas to pilgrims on their way to pay respect to Guadalupe. If the chiquillos see the food, they’ll want some. She tugs their Sunday best into order, smoothing down their hair despite their protests, and it’s a peculiar pang inside her chest, the thought that she’ll have a child who will grow into these — probably these exact clothes, actually.

She has names ready, but —

“Don’t I get a say?” Héctor asks amusedly, when she tells him her decision later.

She thinks about lying, but honestly —

“— you have no taste and I’m not raising a child named after whatever composition piece you’re currently enamored with.”

He puts a hand to his chest, feigning wounded, but when she turns away, he mumbles, “… but Gloria is a fine name.”

Shouting and whistling from the paddock attracts their attention; a cousin’s wife is doing something fancy with an ornery colt, and since that’s something Imelda wants to see, she drags him over and elbows into place along the fence. Héctor makes like he’s going to take her hand, but Tía María Rosa, sitting on a nearby barrel with the sharpening tool and a pair of nibblers, gives him the evil eye.

Gone are the days when Imelda and Héctor can disappear and no one will miss them. They’re more closely chaperoned than ever, which Imelda thinks is ridiculous. The worst has already happened, hasn’t it?

This is your life now, she tells herself — in happy moments, when it is her-and-Héctor-and-Ernesto, that three-headed, single-minded thing, talking bigger than they can conceivably plan for — but in the darker ones, too, when the growth in her belly feels like a stone, growing moss and getting heavier, and Imelda has no choice but to roll downhill with it.

This is your life. This is what you chose.

 

*

 

And then, on the same morning a soldier comes into the room where Venustiano Carranza is swatting flies and informs him that Huerta has taken a turn for the worse, General, the prison prepares his deathbed, Carranza inspects the gory remainder on the end of his switch and replies, “good, may that Indigenous tyrant rot for all he put us through,” and across the country Imelda wakes to an awful pain in her lower back, worse even than what precedes her monthlies.

Careful of her sleeping cousins, she rolls out of bed, her nightgown doggedly sticking to her.

Muzzy, cotton-mouthed and weighty with sleep, she reaches behind her to pick it out of her crease as she stumbles for the washbasin. She’s not thinking of anything in particular, just that she hurts and it’s a common prank the primas play, switching the washbasin and the mosquito trap and she should check for lemons before she splashes her face, so it takes a moment to register the hand stretched out in front of her is red and sticky.

That’s gross. What —

Oh, great.

She grabs fistfuls of her gown, dragging it around. The back of it and the blanket she’d been lying on are dark with blood.

Her heart leaps to take her throat by a stranglehold, but her brain doesn’t know why. It hasn’t caught up yet. It’s just disgusted that she got caught off guard and now there’s a mess she’ll have to clean up. That’s a particularly bad one, though, especially when she’s been so irregular for months —

And then her heart, abruptly cut loose, plummets into her stomach.

She opens her mouth.

Her scream jolts the other girls awake, and the room only gets louder and more awful from there.

 

*

 

“It’ll be over soon, mija,” her mother promises her, from the other side of the door.

The only response Imelda can manage is a tiny moan. Her insides are cramped up so wrenchingly she cannot draw breath. She pants through her teeth, hands dug into the small of her back, trying to relieve the pressure.

Outside, someone asks a question, and her mother squawks, “No! Go find another another toilet!”

“But Tía … “ the voice whines.

“If it’s so urgent that your drawers are in danger, you shouldn’t have waited so long, chavo. This one’s occupied!”

The indignation in her mother’s voice, fierce and protective, makes Imelda weak in the knees with sudden gratitude. When she thinks she can, she gets off the pot and goes over to the door, thunking down against it. A moment later, she hears her mother sit down on the other side, knocking her head against the same spot Imelda’s is.

“It will come away soon,” she repeats, like it’s supposed to be a comfort. “And then it will be over.”

“There’s no chance …” Imelda tries. She sounds stupid, and young, even to her own ears.

“No. No, Imelda. It won’t live. I’m sorry.”

Imelda drops her head.

She wants her in here with her. She wants to be held. She wants someone to help her through this, but they put her in the bathroom and shut the door and called her mother to come guard her. To the rest of the household, it will seem like Imelda’s just having a particularly bad monthly — a fiction that must be preserved, for everyone’s sake.

Imelda knows this. It doesn’t change the fact she’s shut up in a dark, stinking room, alone and in pain.

And her body —

— her baby

“I love you,” says the voice on the other side of the door, like it knows. “Imeldita, cielito, my darling, my only daughter — I am so sorry.”

Imelda dashes her hands across her cheeks.

“Bet this is a relief for you, isn’t it?” she says, letting her tone turn vicious. “I won’t shame you after all, if it all goes away quietly enough.”

“That’s not fair …”

“Isn’t it? Isn’t it, Mamá?”

A pause.

“There’s so much I wanted to spare you from,” her mother says, with a creaking note, like her words are too heavy to comfortably carry. Imelda’s breath leaves her all at once, because yes, she knows. The Consequelas never let them forget it. “I’m sorry for my part in this, Imelda.”

Imelda sobs, but then the cramping starts again and she has to get up to return to the pot, so she can lose, and lose, and lose.

 

*

 

When it comes away, the … the remains are wrapped in flour cloth, and taken out to be buried.

“Wait,” Imelda drags herself up and digs her rosary out of her pocket, pooling it on top of the flour cloth so they can be buried together. It’s one of the few possessions she has that hadn’t belonged to someone else first. It’s an aching, terrible hope inside of her, that the Virgin Mother will have pity on it, or some other saint, for whatever it might be.

From those in the know, she gets horror and sympathy in equal measure (“I told you!” cries the cousin’s wife, the one who’d been worried about her bleeding,) and worse than all that — smugness from her uncle.

Once she’s been cleaned up to presentable standards, he comes in to see her, to tell her, charitably, that he’s taken care of it. The wedding. There’s no need for it now, though she must know it will make things difficult for her in the future, since she’s carelessly spent her bride money.

Still. Nice to have a second chance, right?

“God knew,” he tries to say. “This is —“

And Imelda snarls, “you know nothing,” in a voice so vicious and guttural that he actually takes a step back, naked shock showing on his face. Her mother’s there in a heartbeat, at her back — support that she was not anticipating.

“Mamá?” she says to her later, when at last her blanket’s been scrubbed clean. That’s every last trace that it ever was.

Doña Flores pauses. “Imelda?”

“What does this make me?” Her voice comes out as small and pulpy as the pit of a fruit. “I’d gotten used to the idea I was going to be a mother. Where does all of that — that feeling go? Am I still a mother? Can you be a mother with no child? What do I —“

— do with all of this love? Where can I put it down?

And her mother, Mariano Consequela’s Coatzacoalcos bride, pulls her in and kisses the top of her head.

She doesn’t answer, because there isn’t one.

 

*

 

All of this, somehow, is over before the day is done, so that when Héctor comes skidding into the compound later that afternoon, it’s without any inkling that anything’s changed. To cancel the wedding, her uncle would have informed Padre Luis, and possibly the florist — it wouldn’t have occurred to him to tell the groom.

Her cousins’ niños abandon their kickball game and dash up to him, letting him ruffle their hair good-naturedly. They’ve never cared that the adults are ostracizing him.

She watches from the door to the main house as they catch his arms and swing from them, loudly broadcasting the curiosities of their day. (“Where did they send him?” Héctor asks, all exaggerated surprise. “Spain? No! How is a president of Mexico supposed to be our president if he isn’t in Mexico? What do you mean, he’s not president! Tell me what happened!”)

He looks up, and sees her.

If she even thought about pretending anything, she doesn’t get the chance: his face changes immediately.

“Perdóneme, caballeros,” he says to the boys, extracting himself with difficulty.

He approaches her on the porch, swiping his hat from his head. She looks at the slime on his boots. She looks at his hands clutching the brim. She has trouble meeting his eyes.

Steam pours over the courtyard. On the other side of the wall, a train screams.

“Imelda?” he ventures.

She doesn’t know what she’s going to say — there’s been an accident is stupid, and don’t look so worried, you’re going to be relieved is even worse — and her mouth opens and makes the decision for her.

“I lost it,” she hears herself say, hollowly, distant, like it’s her that’s been exiled to Spain and left the rest to run without her. “The baby. It’s gone.”

And Héctor, to his everlasting credit, doesn’t say a word.

He steps up to her and pulls her into his arms. His hat shelters her back, and she shudders, and shudders again. She has no idea how long they stand there, holding each other. Her family doesn’t interrupt them. It’s the nicest thing they’ve ever done for her, in all their years.

 

*

 

Her brothers exchange a look.

“Imelda,” says Óscar.

“Little sister,” says Felipe.

“We know the circumstances have changed. We weren’t sure if you still wanted it.”

“But it’s finished. You should decide what you want done with it.”

“With what?” Imelda wants to know, except then the twins are reaching behind their bed, and pulling out an old guitar case.

Humbly, Felipe tells her, “It’s no Zacatlán clock.”

Modestly, Óscar adds, “But there’s nothing else in the world like it, I promise you.”

Her heart, which for days has hung motionless, suspended on a hook inside her chest the way you do with skinned meat before it goes bad, gives a startled, anticipatory leap. Is this the guitar? Her uncle would find a way to get bride money back, but he has no use for a guitar, especially this one.

They set the case down in front of her.

She flips the latches, opens the lid —

— breathes unsteadily, closes it, gets her breath back —

— and opens it again.

And she knows, from the instant she pulls her thumb across the strings and feels it resonate under her hand, that this is the best her brothers’ sound engineering could provide. That they did it, because she asked them to.

She turns, and embraces them. Hard.

Together, they lay their cheeks against her head.

“You’re welcome,” they say, as if she said anything at all.

When she gets a chance, she takes it to the school, where nobody bats an eyelash at a young woman carrying a guitar case. She finds Héctor with Ernesto out back, husking corn in a manner that suggests they’ve been given punishment for something, although neither of them seem to be acting punished, flicking corn tassels at each other and hooking their feet behind the other’s stools, trying to tip them off balance.

Ernesto flops a curtain of silky soft tassels in front of his eyes, then smooths them back in the exaggerated matter of a quinceañera taking care with her hairdo, looks up, spots Imelda — spots the guitar case — and the legs of his stool come down with a thunk.

“Imelda!” says Héctor, brightening. “Are you here to apprentice to the maestro, finally?”

“It’s my brothers who should apprentice, not me,” says Imelda.

“As … musicians?”

To his credit, he sounds only slightly dubious. Óscar and Felipe are not bad singers, and they need an apprenticeship — any apprenticeship — before their uncle traps them into horsecraft or soldiering.

“As instrument-makers,” Imelda stresses.

Realization clears the clouds from their faces.

“Here,” she blurts out. Gingerly, she sets the guitar down, resting it on top of the mound of corn husks. “This was supposed to be a wedding present, but now I guess it’s just a present. Feliz Navidad, or something.”

Héctor cuts a glance at Ernesto, whose expression is impenetrable. He ticks an eyebrow back.

Slowly, Héctor sets the case on its side, flips the latches, and opens the lid.

Later — forty, fifty years down the line, when asked what she’s most proud of, Imelda will have a decently-sized list of things ready at hand, and an attitude to match. But there are only three moments in her life where she can say definitively that she made a difference. Where she knew that she drastically altered the course of someone’s life for the better.

The first was Soledad, with the ring.

The second was Rosita, with Paula, and Imelda came into the kitchen one morning to find them mixing paints for the tiles they were going to glaze and inlay to back the countertops, their heads bent together, easy and laughing in the safe place Imelda made for them, and that thought was a bolt out of the blue. You cannot have discipline and fortitude sit at your kitchen table if love and acceptance are not there as well, and woe betide anyone who forgets that — herself included.

But the third …

The third was this, now, with Héctor Rivera’s eyes going wider, and wider — the realization that this was his, that a man who possessed an instrument like this would never be poor, or helpless, or dependent.

The things Imelda wanted for herself, more than anything — she couldn’t imagine any better gift to give someone else.

“Oh,” Héctor says, wrecked. “Oh, Imelda.”

He lifts the guitar out.

Imelda’s main vision had been the color; the same silver-white color of the cloud forest when it comes to earth, with a mosaic pattern hemming it in along the edges.

The skull had been Ernesto’s suggestion.

(“Día de los Muertos is his favorite holiday. More than Christmas, more than Juárez’s birthday — I don’t get it, who doesn’t love fireworks? No, I don’t know — his whole family’s dead, right? It’s probably nice to think that there’s a holiday where they’ll visit him willingly. What? No, not really — I don’t know mine. You can’t invite them back if you don’t know who they are.”)

Eventually, Héctor will add his own touch, coloring one of the teeth in gold. The first time they see it, Imelda and Ernesto exchange a look, each expecting the other to understand the significance — and by that point, for there to be something about Héctor they didn’t know was significant by itself.

Ernesto smiles and nods when Héctor, stunned and incredulous and overjoyed, looks to him, but then next Imelda glances in his direction, he’s evaporated. She cranes her neck, but the husked corn is gone and there isn’t anyone else to be seen.

“Does it have a name?” Héctor asks, distracting her. “An instrument this fine needs a name, like ships do. Or swords.”

Imelda takes the vacated stool.

“I hadn’t thought about it,” she says. “But it’s yours. What do you want to name it?”

He considers it. The guitar’s cradled in his lap, and he rocks, unconsciously, hands drifting just to hear the sounds they make knocking up against it, the smooth finish, the frets and strings.

For a long time, he stays quiet, and Imelda watches the bent shape of his neck and tries not to think of anything at all.

He says, “Imelda, what were you going to name it? If it had lived?” and then has to move it in a hurry, because his lap will not fit guitar and Imelda both.

He sets it to the side, gently, and returns Imelda’s embrace.

It’s one thing, she thinks, as they grip each other tight — it’s one thing to know that she loves him and wants to give him this. It’s another thing entirely to know, to know without question, that he loves her, too. That he wants to give her this, too.

When she can manage it, she turns her head, pressing her mouth against his ear. She tells him, and he rests their faces alongside each other.

“Then that’s its name,” he promises.

 

*

 

Christmas comes and goes. The first week of January, the children put water and feed outside the gate so the horses carrying Los Reyes Magos have something to eat, too, in the hopes that the three kings will be generous with their gifts. Imelda’s too old for her three gifts by now, but her brothers make a little something for every child in the house. All day, miniature paper frogs keep leaping out of nowhere to startle people, and this time, when Héctor asks, she goes completely still and stares at him.

It goes on for so long that, anxiously, he leans in like he’s checking to make sure she’s blinking.

Finally, when the squeezed, bound-up feeling in her chest eases enough for her to talk, she snaps, “Is the sky red?”

“Er,” says Héctor.

“Did the sky turn red?” Imelda persists. “Is that it?”

“I —“

His mouth works fishily, and then, because he’s ridiculous, he actually checks. She thinks he might be so nervous that any answer that wasn’t a “yes” or a “no” is having trouble processing in that brain of his.

“No?” he sounds like he’s guessing. “No, it’s blue.”

She fixes him with a look.

“And as long as the sky remains blue, Héctor Rivera,” she tells him, “There is no one else I would rather marry. I’m going to marry you. That hasn’t changed.”

“Oh,” he says in a small voice.

She gets up and briskly brushes the wrinkles out of her skirt.

“Can’t believe you even had to ask,” she mutters, and leaves him smiling stupidly after her.

Later, though, he stops her mid-stride and puts his hand on her arm. When she glances up, his face is twisted up into a rictus of horror. Mutely, he points.

For a beat, she doesn’t know what he wants her to look at — not the hairless dog licking its private parts in a self-important way, surely, not the birds preening on the wall, but — oh! The sky! Which is …

Which at sunset is the color fruit gets when you peel it; reds and pinks and oranges so thick it’s as if you can taste the juices of them just by looking.

It’s spectacular, of course, and made all the more precious by the fact their sunsets are usually obscured by fog, but …

Not blue.

“Ah,” she says. Then, “Ah, well. That was fun while it lasted. Adios.”

She starts to pull away.

With a strangled noise, like something small that’s just had its tail trod on (the noise he still makes, sometimes, when she kisses him,) his grip tightens and he pulls her insistently into his side. He wraps an arm around her, pressing his mouth against her temple. Imelda looks around, but there’s no one watching — just that silly dog, and the birds, and the low-hanging fruit sky. She lets herself sink against him.

“You drive me crazy,” Héctor murmurs into her hair. “I’m going to go crazy.”

“Are you really?” she says back, low.

“A little,” he amends. “‘I’ll only marry you so long as the sky is blue,’ honestly.”

Imelda tolerates a few more kisses, laughing through them.

“You’re going to keep me guessing for the rest of our lives. Of course I’m going a little crazy.” His voice drops, and she thinks this might be one of those times he’s telling her something else entirely. “Un poco loco.”

 

*

 

“Which is nice,” says Ernesto, “and congratulations to you both, but it doesn’t solve any of our problems.”

Ach,” says Héctor, in a very Imelda-ish way. “Don’t be a donkey.”

Ernesto looks at him. Carefully, and with great deliberation, he scrapes a handful of moss off the rock he’s sitting on, and throws it at Héctor’s face.

“Nice,” Héctor says, and brushes it off his eyelashes.

Between them, Imelda twirls a marigold bloom between her fingers, the petals turning kaleidoscopic as she twists them one way, then the other. She holds it up. “I have an idea.”

They look at her.

Slowly, she pulls her eyes up, and starts to smile. “How good are you at stealing things?”

“Decent,” says Ernesto promptly.

Héctor opens his mouth, shuts it, and stares at him.

“… if the moment’s right,” he concedes.

Another beat, and Héctor makes a visible decision not to touch that and turns back to her.

“Well, don’t look at me,” he says, “I needed you to rescue me last time. Why, what are we stealing?”

Imelda sets the flower down, and answers, “My brothers.”

 

*

 

“Yes, okay,” says Óscar.

“We’re in,” says Felipe.

“That was easy,” says Imelda. And then, “First, you need to win your horses from the Consequela uncles.”

The twins blink, one after the other, tick then tock.

“On second thought —“

“— thank you, but —“

They slap their hands to their knees and start to rise from their chairs, and Imelda says, “ah, ah, ah!” and bars them with her arm. “Just hear me out.”

“You think we’re going to escape on horseback?” says Felipe dubiously.

“It would be dramatic, I like your flare,” Óscar adds diplomatically. “But we don’t have nearly the dashing mustaches for it.”

“You’re not taking the horses,” she answers. “We’re taking the horses. You are going to take the train.”

And she sees it, like light cresting, as realization dawns across their faces.

 

*

 

The rite of passage for any Consequela boy (and girl, to a lesser extent,) is to break in a new horse for the family, there in the paddock while the uncles sit on the fenceposts and watch, beating their hats on their knees and shouting advice. All horses bear the Consequela brand as soon as they’re purchased, but it’s an unspoken rule that the first horse you break in is yours, and that’s how they’re addressed. “Sister Evalina is renting which horse?” “Emilio’s, primo!”

Imelda’s horse is a pinto mare they bought from Teodoro’s, the Zapotec trainer down in Cañada (who found a quick way to make bank in the early years of the war, so long as he sold his horseflesh to the right side,) and Imelda got her to take saddle and reins purely because one of the lesser uncles told her she couldn’t do it.

The pinto’s known in the stables for responding to Imelda’s whistles and then conveniently forgetting every command she ever learned should anyone else try it. She and Imelda get along famously.

But Óscar and Felipe — their failure to live up to this tradition is one of the many black marks they have against them.

“It doesn’t have to be anything fancy,” Imelda assures them. “In fact, it’s probably better that you don’t.”

“They’ve got such big teeth,” Felipe says despairingly.

“You want us to go near them — on purpose?” Óscar whines.

“After everything we’ve done so we don’t —“

“— have to at all?”

“Are you engineers or aren’t you?” she fires back. “How do they work? God put horses together, and God’s the smartest engineer of them all — figure it out.”

Their uncle’s next bargain includes one grey stallion, two geldings with bad table manners, and two brown mares, bought for cheap from a battlefield scalper who barely even stopped to cut the army lapels off of them before turning around and selling them.

It’s the mares Imelda zeroes in on. They’re pack horses, those two.

“Them,” she says to her brothers, and they breathe out in relief.

“Oh, good.”

“We were worried you’d tell us to take the stallion.”

“No. Leave him for whatever idiot wants to get himself brained next. The mares.”

They glance at each other.

Their expressions firm up, and they nod.

 

*

 

Imelda dangles her legs out the back of the gazebo, the twins’ workbook open on her lap. She has a map painstakingly spread out on top of it, tracing the lines onto the page, and for once, her worries feel manageable, her grief a half-step behind her. Her monthly’s about to start, but she can handle that, and there’s a hole forming at the toe of her boot where the thread’s coming undone; she can feel the damp coming through.

No one’s set up to play yet, and they might not: the cloud looks like it’s going to come down early.

A scrape of gravel brings her head up just as Héctor hops up to join her, making an exaggerated show of checking their surroundings before leaning in to steal a kiss. Imelda catches his face and kisses him back, once, twice, until the book starts to slip from her lap.

“How’s it coming?” he asks, while they’re still laughing.

“South first,” she tugs the map up, and points. “Then west, see, until it takes us back around again — unless we think we’ve got a chance of cutting through into Veracruz. It’s still Carranza’s stronghold, after all.”

But he’s shaking his head. “No, you’re right, it’s not worth the risk.”

“That’s what I thought.”

She goes back to tracing, and after a moment, he starts swinging his legs in tandem with hers. She smiles, cuts him a sidelong look — and then frowns curiously. He’s got something on his neck, like all his freckles merged together, and she reaches out to pin his collar down with the end of her pencil —

Ah. No, not freckles.

He lifts his eyebrows at her stifled noise. “What?”

But she smiles and shakes her head, “no, nothing,” and watches out of the corner of her eye as he investigates under his collar, then grimaces and tugs it up.

“Is it weird?” she asks.

“Is what weird?” he says, too quickly.

She suppresses another smile. “Down in the valleys. Or on the coast. I’ve never left the cloud forest — I think it must be weird, to be where it is not.”

“It’s … different,” he allows, after giving it thought. “I don’t know how to describe it. Like a steady soprano, maybe?”

Imelda blinks.

He pinwheels a hand at her. “I don’t know!” he exclaims. “How do you describe sunny days? Blue skies? A not-cloud? It’s just — like when there’s a really pure note that’s just … sustained. You’ll know it when you see it, I think you’ll like it.”

She does grin then. “I’m sure I will,” and closes the workbook. “But now I need to go.”

She tucks the workbook under her arm and gathers her skirts up, preparing to hop down, except he drags in a deep breath and says, “Imelda,” and she stops, alert to the change in his voice.

“Yes?”

“There’s something I need to tell you. About me.”

She ticks an eyebrow at him. “I already know about the boiling water.”

“What? No, not that. Well, yes, that, but that’s not what I’m talking about.” He slides to the ground, extending a hand to help her down. She lets him. Together, they skirt around the edge of the plaza, and she watches out of the corner of her eye as he knots the tails of his shirt around his fingers, tighter and tighter, to the point where she grows concerned for the integrity of the fabric.

Finally, he starts talking.

“This … is hard. Hard to take, too. I didn’t mean for it to become a secret, and I don’t want to marry you without you knowing — it’s too important for you not to know, you’re too important for you not to know, and I’ve been reliably informed that the longer I wait to tell you, the more it’s going to seem like a secret, and I don’t want to be a person with secrets, so here I am. Telling you. Going to tell you.”

All of this comes out very fast.

Imelda frowns, and then her eyebrows spring apart, shocked.

She grabs him by the arm and drops her voice. “Wait, are you trying to tell me how Ernesto’s got you in his bed the way you’ve got me in yours?”

Héctor’s whole body jerks.

“Figuratively,” Imelda adds, because a bed is one place she hasn’t had Héctor, funnily enough.

Several interesting things happen to him at once: his face floods, then drains of color almost simultaneously. His mouth works fishily, and then he sits down, fast, right there on the ground, slipping out of her grasp.

“You … you knew?” His voice is worn, threadbare. “How did you … ”

There’s nothing for it at that point, so Imelda sweeps her skirts to the side and sits down next to him.

“Well, I didn’t leave that mark on your neck,” she points out.

As she knew it would, his hand flies up to cover it, and he starts stammering.

“It doesn’t necessary follow — that doesn’t — I could have another girlfriend!”

Her eyebrows lift.

“And …” he follows the thought through to conclusion. “If I had another girlfriend, your watchdog primas would already have murdered me in my sleep.”

“Hung, drawn, and quartered,” she cheerfully confirms. “And then made it my fault somehow.”

“But I don’t … understand.”

“Héctor,” she tries not to let her amusement show, “when I met you, you were trying to disguise yourself as a postulant to break into the convent and steal back his love letters so he wouldn’t be embarrassed.”

He opens his mouth. Closes it again.

“But we — weren’t, then,” he says blankly.

“That came later?” she guesses, and suddenly sits upright with a snap of her fingers. “That time you ran away! I knew something was different when you came back!”

But she didn’t have the context for it then, how being in love rearranges everything inside of you, so nothing’s where you remember putting it and you’ve got to stumble around until you’ve found it all again, and everyone around you clucks their tongue and says, infatuated. She laughs, pleased with herself.

That’s why the army never got you, but you never got a show, either! You were in bed the whole time — the same way we were in the stables!”

“We were not!” Héctor fires back, and then reconsiders.

He sobers, and Imelda’s mirth, left alone, dwindles down too.

“You never said anything,” he whispers, and they both abruptly become interested in studying the stones at their feet, the place where the cobble gives way to a beaten dirt path, where the moss is trying to claim it all.

“Why would I?” she says back, out of the corner of her mouth. “That’s a grave thing to accuse someone of, if I didn’t have proof.”

Besides, it’s not typically the first conclusion people come to. Imelda wouldn’t have known men could lie with men the way they could lie with women — but then again, until this year, she hadn’t known men could lie with women at all, or what would happen when they did, so it hadn’t been much more of a shock to learn the other way could be true, too. It’s yet another one of those things that no one talks about — like Imelda’s almost-baby, and now that she’s been the secret that comes with secret-keeping, a sense of fellow feeling makes her sensitive to others.

“I saw you once,” she blurts, and that hadn’t been anything at all: putting their instruments away after a session, Imelda coming around the back of the gazebo to return their sheet music to them. Héctor concentrated on the clasp to his case, tongue tucked in the corner of his mouth for safekeeping, and Ernesto cast a quick look around, overlooked Imelda entirely, then slid his hand around Héctor’s waist.

Imelda had froze, watched that hand splay across Héctor’s stomach, pulling him back so Ernesto could kiss the back of his neck — just once, without urgency, just affection, and calm, and adoration, and a dozen other things Imelda recognized down to the root of her heart.

When it came to Héctor, she and Ernesto were often on the same page.

Even then, she might have been willing to dismiss it — they were affectionate, so what, lots of schoolboys were — if not for how Héctor relaxed into it, tipping his head back. His face hadn’t hidden anything at all.

And Imelda’s not going to lie. It hurt, a little, that some of the things she loved most about Héctor, like the feeling of his head on her chest, his hair against the underside of her chin as she clutched him close and he turned his mouth against her collarbone, she got secondhand from Ernesto de la Cruz of all people, but she’s the youngest of a hoard of cousins. Almost everything she owns is secondhand, and most of it is perfectly serviceable.

Possession isn’t everything.

“I.” Héctor’s throat bobs. “Yes. I — Ernesto and I, we’re. When things aren’t going well, and — sometimes when they’re going very well indeed, but!” At the look on her face, he gestures, fast. “That’s why I’m bringing it up. If you want me to stop, now is when I can wind it down.”

“If he is the kind of man you are scared to say ‘no’ to …” Imelda starts, frowning.

Héctor gestures. “It’s not that! He’s just more — difficult when he’s disappointed, so I try not to drop it on him. I’ll stop the — the — “

And there they are, running right up against the absence in their vocabulary.

“— barnyard antics?” Imelda suggests. It’d been one of her aunt’s euphemisms.

He blinks. “— sure. Them. I’ll stop them, I would just like to work up to it, is all. He would blame you, if I did it differently, and then he’d blame himself, and I don’t want any of that.”

A noise nearby shuts them both up, and they watch as the slop boy from the inn slows to a stroll, loitering around and kicking at things, clearly trying to kill time before the cloud comes down and he’s got to return to work. Spotting them sitting there in the middle of the path, his face goes keenly sharp, but quickly flips into disappointment: it’s just the musicians, and they’re engaged. That’s not interesting.

While they wait, Imelda considers it.

Ernesto had told her that he wanted her and Héctor to get married — but she has a suspicion that it’s part of some internal story Ernesto’s already decided on. He’s always liked the story something makes better than the reality.

And to think, she could flex this power. She could say, yes, stop seeing him, you will be my husband and no other.

Her, the horsemaster’s youngest, most-throwaway niece, who never gets anything. She could have that.

But —

But any plan of Héctor’s or Imelda’s always included Ernesto. From the very beginning, to the point where Héctor would rather Ernesto marry her if he couldn’t, so they wouldn’t lose her. How sure he’d been that it would work. She thinks of how close to spitting she and Ernesto got, confronted with the idea that the other might love Héctor more, how when it eased through they were fast friends, because you can’t not be.

It’ll be the three of them. It has to be.

It won’t work otherwise.

Imelda waits until she knows she’s got the words lined up. “If you could marry him instead of me, you’d’ve done so already.”

Héctor startles, and opens his mouth, but she silences him with a look.

“So don’t make the mistake of thinking I am the only one who comes with rules just because I’m the one you will sign a contract with. Every relationship has its vows, witnessed or not.”

“That’s … true.”

“What I am saying — I am saying we are not incompatible,” she decides with a brisk nod. “Your vows to him and your vows to me need not be at cross purposes.”

Héctor stares. Imelda looks at him, quick, and away again.

“Imelda Consequela,” he says, in a tone of voice that comes out strangled, thick with it, the cloud come down to earth and everything turned to soup except for this, here, in front of you, the only real thing. “I do not think I have ever met anyone like you.”

Imelda scoffs, and says tartly, “I should hope not.”

 

*

 

They are married in the spring — early, so as not to compete with the wedding of the mayor’s daughter to the engineer from Zacatlán, the one who wanted the mayor to hire him to build dams on Sierra Juárez, who wanted Papá Figaro to hire him to make crazy instruments. Instead, he wound up agreeing to expand the train depot. It’s an ambitious wedding for an ambitious project, and the mayor’s daughter wants the poqui-ti-ti-ta Consequela done and out of the way so that there are no distractions from her own preparations.

Her mother folds her arms.

“That is horseshit,” she announces.

“Mamá, it’s fine,” Imelda says placatingly, and drops her voice, “Óscar and Felipe won’t thank us if we jeopardize their chances now.”

Doña Flores had been working herself up like a good pair of bellows, but she releases it with a gusty sigh.

“You’re right,” she says, because she is the only other one in on the plan — and only partially, because she doesn’t know Imelda’s part. “but I’m not happy about it.”

Imelda smiles, because that’s been her mother’s refrain since the very beginning. She clucks her tongue and sucks at her teeth about every last detail — these flowers are wilted, and entirely the wrong color, and a handful of Papá Figaro’s teenage apprentices do not a wedding band make, honestly, do they want everyone to call Imelda a pauper? And that Héctor! (“That Héctor” had been just fine yesterday, when Tía Consequela made a disparaging remark about his income and her mother flew to his defense.)

Oh, and could he not do something about that patchy beard, just once, just for one day?

“I don’t like to see you settle for day-old leather, that’s all,” she huffs, and straightens Imelda’s neckline for the third time in as many hours.

Imelda looks at the ceiling, praying for patience.

I don’t have to tolerate this, she thinks.

But she’s going to anyway. She’s watched every last one of her aunts do this same thing with their daughters, and knows this is her mother’s only chance to have what they had, to be the conductor of all this attention for the first time in her life. Your daughters only get married once. After this, it’s back to the bottom of the family pecking order for both of them.

She puts her hands under her mother’s elbows, and looks at her.

Doña Flores levels her a steady look, and says what Imelda’s thinking. “It’s fortunate that you don’t look much like me. How different all this would be if you did.”

“Mamá,” Imelda says warningly.

She, Óscar, and Felipe take after their father in looks, and Imelda had been very young indeed the first time it occurred to her that they’d been spared something, that even in photographs with no color your eyes still pulled towards her — oh, Mariano’s wife, she’s from Coatzacoalcos. All Imelda got from her was her nose, maybe, and her propensity for baby hair. The twins didn’t even get that.

“Of course, there’s still plenty of work to be done, but we do what we can,” her mother says, and that’s more like her.

With a sigh, Imelda leans in and kisses her cheek, and lets her get on with it.

Doña Flores may have her criticisms, but afterwards, Imelda decides there’s nothing she would have changed.

Héctor has no parents, no godparents, no brothers or sisters or cousins, so Papá Figaro and Ernesto and all the music school apprentices leap in to play the roles of the groom’s family; Ernesto comes to the door first thing in the morning (his hair, of course, is perfectly coifed; her cousins giggle about it and pretend to swoon) bringing limes and chiles, pan de yema with a perfectly slashed crust, chocolate and cinnamon and half-dozen other things Imelda’s aunts will need to add to the mole they ground. It makes him the most popular person there that morning, since the war means these things are only really brought out for weddings. On the walk to church, Héctor leads the band; a half-dozen children in their Sunday best, including a Consequela son who grins and tugs at Imelda’s skirt as he goes prancing by.

Inside the church, everything’s been done up in flowers. Dewdrops of color hang off the altar. It’s breathtaking to see.

But then again, it would be.

Nobody eats well when a war is on, except for the flowers.

Padre Luis smiles at them over the tops of his spectacles, indulgent even as they fumble their Latin, the same invocations they’ve been saying at Mass every week their whole lives turned suddenly strange and foreign in their mouths. At Imelda’s side, Ines rolls her eyes towards the painted saints in their cupola in a clear prayer for patience.

When Héctor leans in at the close, he has to move her crown of flowers to get to her mouth. In retaliation, she takes her finger and nudges his nose aside to reach his. They’re laughing when they kiss.

Above them, the pipe organ takes a deep breath, then fills the church with the opening notes of the recessional, and Imelda and Héctor join hands and raise their voices to meet it.

The music makes God Himself come down from heaven to investigate.

They can hear Him in the belfry; the pleased, sonorous hum resounding inside the church bell even as it stands completely at rest. Ines lifts her wide eyes, and on their other side, Ernesto — who’d spent much of the ceremony wearing the same polite, beleaguered look people get when the engineer from Zacatlán’s been talking to them for too long, like he’s not sure what’s going on and would like it to stop — looks up too, with something new and dawning on his face. The bell keeps humming.

“Well,” says Padre Luis, pleased.

Afterwards, at Casa Consequela, once her aunts emerge with the three types of mole, once the toasts are made (forgettable, mostly, except for Ernesto’s, filling in the role of godparent: he recounts the story of rescuing Héctor from drowning, and finishes it by saying, “I moved Heaven and Earth for you once, compadre, and I will do it again. ¡Salud!”) and Imelda’s been passed around to everyone who matters for a dance, someone suggests she sing for them.

Of course, once Imelda starts singing, she finds a sudden new appreciation for what Ernesto said: let the song sing you.

She feels like she couldn’t stop it, even if she wanted to.

She gets the boys to join in, then the band, then the rest of the wedding party — all the old classics, and a few she’s pretty sure they’ve never heard before. Imelda only stops dancing when her voice scratches, and Héctor takes her out of line and pushes her into a chair, laughingly calling for someone to get the bride a glass of water.

That’s me, Imelda thinks. She’s been going to weddings all her life, and now that it’s hers, the compulsion to look over her shoulder for the actual bride is stronger than she’d thought it’d be.

Someone hands Héctor the glass over her shoulder, she doesn’t see who, and he presents her with it. “Señora.”

Imelda had been about to say “thank you”, but the word brings her up short.

She sloshes water, sitting bolt upright and switching hands with the intention of smacking him.

I am not! she thinks, eighteen years old and indignant at the very idea. A señora! Her! Those are old women. “Señora” is what you get called by someone who doesn’t know better and then you whine about it to your cousins.

Except — she is. A señora. By definition. Héctor’s, specifically.

She narrows her eyes. “Say that again.”

Héctor, who’d clearly been expecting a reaction more along the lines of “get hit”, blinks at her with a startlingly open expression. Then he kneels beside her chair.

“Señora,” he murmurs, and catches her wrist, giving the inside of it a kiss. “Señora, señora, señora,” and with each repetition, another kiss; to her arm, to the sleeve of her Sunday best, to her shoulder. “My wife, Imelda.”

“Okay, okay, I got it,” Imelda gives him a shove. “You’ve worn it out, you’re not allowed to say it again until I’m old and grey. Got it, Señor Imelda?”

“I don’t think that’s how that works,” he complains, and smothers her responding laughter by surging up to kiss her.

 

*

 

When the dancing is done, the groom’s best friend disappears with the bride.

They break into the cathedral. They make a vow.

 

*

 

By the agreement reached between Don Consequela and his niece, her suitor, and Ernesto (or, more accurately, Imelda-and-Héctor-and-Ernesto, that three-headed force,) Imelda and Héctor would lodge at Casa Consequela after the wedding.

Just temporarily, of course, you understand, until something else became available, and Don Consequela bobbed his head, said “oh, sure, sure,” and didn’t believe it for a second. By his reckoning, by the time Héctor became a maestro and tried to move them out, he’d have something cooked up to keep that money right where it was.

The room they get shares not so much a wall with Óscar and Felipe’s so much as several planks of plywood and a sheet, having itself once been part of a larger room.

It has a bed, which is the only feature Imelda cares about — she’s never had Héctor on one.

(“Imelda … “ her brother Óscar says the next morning, with the uniquely pained expression universal to nineteen-year-old boys everywhere.

”Please,” her brother Felipe adds.

She laughs, throaty with it, and says, “You’re telling me two geniuses such as yourselves cannot procure earplugs?”

“Modern science hasn’t invented anything powerful enough,” Óscar snaps back.

Imelda laughs harder.

Later, she breaks away and whispers, “Can you be quiet?”

The cloud’s come down and the lights have all been extinguished except for the one at the gate, so there’s nothing to see Héctor by except what the fog reflects from the moon, and even that does a pretty good job of illuminating his incredulous expression.

“Can I be quiet?” he echoes, close enough to her mouth that she can feel it as much as hear it. “I went from one dormitory of boys to another, of course I know how to be quiet. I’m not the problem.”

She snorts, then says, “We’ll have to be quieter than that.”

“Oh, will we?”

She lets her head fall back to give him room. “And the only way to guarantee is to —“

“Stop?” he suggests, and she feels that toothy grin bloom against her neck.

She digs her nails in. “— to go as slow as possible.”

He cottons on. “To build it up?” He tugs at the ties of her skirt, until they’re pressed flush. “I’m not sure how that will play out in the end, on the quiet front. But, I’m willing to try.”)

It’s also how Imelda finds out that Héctor snores.

Not the kind of snoring that anyone can handle, either, like a dog’s or a baby’s. These are deep, intermittent, nasal snores, and Imelda, frankly, feels a little betrayed. She knew about his phobia of unclean water, she knew about Ernesto, she almost had his baby, for God’s sake — but she didn’t know that he makes this abominable racket? Habitually?

You picked this, she tells herself in resignation.

She lasts four more days.

But that’s it. If something’s not done, she’s going to break some kind of record, going from new bride to the young town widow who dumped her husband down a well. No one would ever convict her for it, but it’d still be embarrassing.

It’s the first compromise of their married lives, made at two in the morning by one sleep-deprived Imelda and one half-awake Héctor, still clutching his shoulder from where his wife hit him with an ewer.

The compromise is this: Imelda goes to sleep first.

Héctor, whose high from a show will usually last longer than hers, joins her once he’s finished with his guitar, or his songbook, or Ernesto. Likewise, she rises before he does, and he gets to try new ways to persuade her to be lazy with him, mi amor, Imelda, please come back to bed.

It’s this routine she’ll think of later, as a staple of her married life: herself, falling asleep to the sight of Héctor hunchbacked over his book, drumming index and middle finger to a metronome’s tick, and waking to his warmth in her bed, or her blanket-roll, or wherever they might be.

And it’s these times, she thinks, when she is leaning down to wake him up, that he is most hers.

 

*

 

Two days after that, the mayor makes an announcement in the plaza: that in exchange for their engineer, San Juan Albán will gift Zacatlán two of their cleverest minds, to apprentice with the Relojes clockmakers. An audible murmur passes through the crowd — before he founded his company, the famous clockmaker of Zacatlán had patented train parts, and that was a business much admired up here, where the third train station in Oaxaca was built. Then the mayor calls the horsemaster’s twins forward to receive his blessing.

“Óscar Consequela Flores,” he calls. “Felipe Consequela Flores.”

Imelda’s looking in that direction, so she sees the color blanch out of her uncle’s face, the way he coughs and splutters and tries to mask his shock. Her brothers had not asked his permission to go to Zacatlán to make clever clocks, and he hadn’t noticed their preparations to leave, disguised as they were by Imelda’s wedding plans.

But it’s not like he can refuse them, not when they’ve got the whole town’s blessing.

Imelda turns back to the front, and meets Óscar’s gaze. The smile he gives her is jubilant, victorious, entirely unselfconscious.

My brothers, saved, she thinks. Now me.

She goes to her uncle with her head covered, tells him that the last stage of Ernesto and Héctor’s apprenticeship requires them to travel north, to Jalisco, and once they do that they will be maestros in name and practice — and with the salary to prove it. It’s not that she wants to leave her family, you understand, and it’s only for a short time.

He’s uninterested. There’s nothing in Jalisco he wants.

“You remember your priorities, girl,” he warns her. “Don’t embarrass us.”

She goes to her mother next, who pulls her into her side, glances a kiss off her temple. “Watch for soldiers. I give you my blessing.”

Likewise, Héctor takes Ernesto and they go to Papá Figaro with their heads covered, tells him they’ve got to go north, to visit Imelda’s family in Jalisco now that she’s married. It’s unavoidable — you know how families are, you understand.

Papá Figaro throws his hands up.

“Very well,” he says, fussily. “You’ll miss the Lenten liturgical season, but fine. Go, with my blessing.”

“What would be the harm in actually finishing up your apprenticeships?” Imelda asks, during a hasty meet-up in the market, their voices drowned out by the shouting of the vendors cutting last minute deals. Fresh fish from Puerto Mexico! Coatzacoalcos! On the train today!

“Because,” Héctor answers, “he’s never going to let it happen.”

“I should have been hooded as a maestro years ago,” Ernesto adds, ducking under a pig’s dissected hindquarters, displayed on a hook over the drain. “But he just keeps putting it off. It’s up to us to declare ourselves done, I guess.”

They pass Ava’s group set up in the narrow space between two stalls, their accordion case propped open in front of them for change. Imelda recognizes the song they’re playing, kicks up her heels and swings her skirts out, and Héctor puts his arm out so she can twirl into him. Ava winks at her as they pass.

Still using their momentum, Héctor swings her around the corner and releases her.

Imelda spins to a halt. “And if he’s not lying? Can we afford that risk?”

“We don’t need a master’s certificate. It’s not like we’re going to put down roots and start a school.”

“Why not?”

“We’ve got you,” Ernesto says.

“The secret weapon, the one we didn’t have before,” Héctor agrees.

“Psh,” Imelda says.

They reach the end of the street and stop, because here’s where they’ll need to split: one way goes up into the cloud, towards the school, and the other down, towards the train station and the Consequela hacienda.

“Everyone got what you need?” Héctor checks. “We know the plan?”

Imelda and Ernesto make affirmative noises, and then there’s an awkward beat where nobody moves. They just wait, and blink at each other.

Then Ernesto jolts.

“Oh, right!” He pivots on his heel and sets up the road alone, obviously having forgotten that Héctor wouldn’t be coming with him.

One week to the day after Imelda Consequela Flores marries Héctor Rivera in front of God and all His saints, she saddles up her pinto mare. Her family rallies around her, badgering and unhelpful and handing her continual, contradictory pieces of advice like if they weigh her down enough, she won’t go.

She hugs her mother tightly, and her brothers even tighter.

“Imelda,” says Felipe.

“Little sister,” says Óscar.

“We don’t have anything for you,” says Felipe.

“You already gave me your horses,” Imelda answers in an undertone. She indicates Héctor and Ernesto, their matching brown mares, with a motion of her head. “We couldn’t do this without them.”

“You’re welcome, then.”

“Will you accept our blessing, as well?”

“Yeah,” says Imelda, and is surprised by how gruff her voice sounds. “You too. I mean — anyway.”

Clearing her throat, she turns away and mounts her horse. She waits until she sees their straight backs disappear into the house, then nudges the pinto’s sides, directing her away.

A hand shoots out and grabs hold of the reins.

Imelda glances down.

Ines steps in close, rubbing the pinto’s nose reassuringly, watching her with a look so steady that Imelda finds herself going still under the weight of it, with a feeling not unlike meeting a predator in the pine forest; an inevitability, of being already caught.

Are you going to do this? her face demands. Without your family? Without your name? Without any of it?

Imelda’s hands tighten into fists, knees unconsciously squeezing the pinto’s sides, though of course she’s not going anywhere: no horse turns away from Ines.

Wouldn’t you? she tries to project back. If you could have your dream, even like this, wouldn’t you take it?

Ines’s brow furrows.

The next instant, she’s worming the ring from her finger, pressing it into Imelda’s hand quicker than Imelda knows what to do about it.

“No,” she gasps aloud, aghast, trying to push it back.

Ines sets her jaw, pulling the pinto’s head forward so it blocks her face from the view of their family — if any of them are watching, if any of them care about the good-byes of the most expendable members of the Consequela household.

“I’ll tell them I lost it in the stables,” she tells Imelda, refusing to take the ring back. “It means nothing to me, it’s just a shackle my husband likes other people to see, you take it. A woman with jewelry always has something to sell, or give, should everything else fail.”

“Ines …”

She cuts her off.

“You go, you go to where Mexico is sickest and … and you sing until it doesn’t remember that anymore, got it?”

And Imelda makes a low noise and bends almost double to crush Ines to her, and Ines embraces her back hard enough to send up a puff of dust, smelling like hay, horses, metal, and home.

 

*

 

In the Land of the Dead her second year there, Imelda sits on a low retaining wall along the parade route with Papá Figaro on one side and Soledad on the other. They watch the kids cavort around in costumes, firing fake guns at each other; their weapons are made of paper mache, and pop out confetti sparks.

“— don’t like you alone in that big compound,” Figaro’s shouting to her above the noise.

“I’m not alone!” Imelda shouts back. “I’ve got Pepita.”

Figaro’s facial tattoos lift with his smile. “You know, alebrijes are supposed to appear to those most in need of them, to guide them on a spiritual journey they’ve not yet made.”

“Thank you, yes, I got the same pamphlet.”

He scratches his chin. “Do you think the bigger the alebrije, the bigger the journey?”

Ach!” exclaims Soledad before Imelda can. She hops off the wall and brushes off her pants. “Listen, if you’re going to waste time grinding bones about philosophy, I’m getting more drinks. Do either of you want anything?”

As she shifts her weight, Imelda catches a glimpse of something heavy, golden at her throat, peeking out between the zipper teeth of her jacket, which is as black and leather as the rest of her ensemble. With a startled noise, she leans forward, hooking the chain on a finger and pulling the necklace out. It’s no charm — it’s a ring.

For a long moment, she just looks at it, sitting on the bones of her palm.

Her cousin Ines’s wedding band.

“You kept it,” she says softly.

“Of course I did,” says Soledad, nonplussed. “You gave it to me, because people were whispering. One of the most expensive things you owned, and you gave it to me without hesitation. It’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me, Mamá Imelda, thank you.”

Imelda shakes her head, thinking of that cold, clear look on Ines’s face, the mountain bare-faced with no fog obscuring it at all.

“I was paying it forward,” she says. “As any woman would, in our situation.”

Soledad smiles and straightens up, so the ring on its chain slips from Imelda’s palm. She tucks it back into her jacket, and says brightly, “So! Drinks?”

When she’s gone, Imelda turns her attention back to the parade, which got quieter once the kids’ section had gone by. Now it’s all young men, and soldaderas too, in their red-white-green blankets, their hats and their bandoliers. Figaro isn’t wrong — it’s a lonely business, waiting for your family to die so that you can rebuild.

She wonders — did she outlive Ines? Is Ines here, what is she el santo to, what is her alebrije, is she free?

Has she gotten her chance, the way Imelda got hers?

“Did I tell you, Imelda,” Figaro says to her, almost conversationally. “That your family never forgave me. They think I engineered it somehow, and wouldn’t believe me when I said I’d been hoodwinked, too. You never wrote.”

And that …

That stings, far worse than Imelda’s expecting.

She swallows. “Is this where you call me a hypocrite?”

He says nothing, and Imelda …

Imelda is not eighteen anymore.

“I’m sorry, Papá,” she says instead, and can tell at once by the way he reacts that he didn’t expect an apology. “I never intended to make it difficult for you.”

 

*

 

Ernesto draws his mare up alongside hers, and waits until Ines releases the pinto’s reins.

“Ready?” he asks.

Imelda tucks the ring into her front pocket, and answers thickly, “Ready.”

Together, they turn to Héctor, who is leaning sideways in his saddle so he can be properly admonished by Imelda’s mother (“no mistresses,” Doña Flores is saying, threateningly, “or I will ring you through the crank like laundry,” and Héctor answers, mystified, “I don’t know where you think I’ll have the time.”)

“Ready?” Ernesto asks him.

“Ready,” says Héctor, straightening up.

Imelda calls one last general good-bye to all her gathered family, and then they turn, and pass through the Consequela gates.

She does not see any of them again in this life.

 

*

 

Here is what you need to know about Ernesto de la Cruz:

1. He lives to be 46 years old.

2. He has no children, accidental or otherwise.

3. Once, a woman comes up to him while he’s signing autographs and says, “por favor, señor, is this you?” which is all the warning Ernesto gets before he’s unceremoniously presented with an old photograph of himself and Héctor and Imelda, one on either side of him, in those ridiculous spangled outfits they pulled out for their routines before they got proper suits. For a moment, he’s thrown entirely out of time, and the urge is kneejerk, hindbrain, the echo of a beat inside of his heart to turn and say, Héctor, would you look at this! But of course no one’s there. It’s like missing your cue, not quite able to catch up to the music — he picks up the photograph, careful to hold it by the edges, and his heart strangles itself neatly, without sound. As if she knows, the Imelda in the picture seems to peek at him sidelong, the kind of look that makes you feel all of an inch tall. “I’m … sorry,” he says slowly, “but I do not quite remember their names.”

4. He has never hit a woman. He has never hit a child. Too much of a decent person, he guesses.

5. The first time he kills a man, they’re still living in Santa Cecilia, and his name is Jorge Guavarrez. The second time, they’re in Mexico City, and his name is Héctor Rivera. The third time, his name is also Héctor, but they’re much older, in bed in Guadalajara. He poisons them, each of them, because that’s what you do with rats.

 

*

Chapter Text

*

 

PART TWO: A BRIEF HISTORY OF OAXACA’S TRAVELING MUSICIANS

 

*

 

“I don’t understand,” says Ernesto. “Why kill them?”

The campfire pops, and he lifts his skewer out, prodding the topmost chile to see if its green skin has roasted to a dark brown yet. He gets burnt fingers for his trouble, hissing and sticking them into his mouth.

“These are done,” and then he continues, “why poison the rats, why not poison the predators instead? They’re the ones who are going to come after your cattle.”

He picks the chiles off the skewer and passes them to Héctor, who’s sweating them and bathing them.

Next, they go to Imelda, who peels the charred outer skin off with her nails, revealing softer, greener flesh underneath. She scrapes the guts out, flicking them back into the fire.

Chicharrón accepts them from her after that and tosses them into the pot.

“If you’re going to learn anything about those at the top,” he tells them, “it’s that they will devour whatever takes the least amount of effort to obtain. If I poison the rats, then the predators are left with a choice: scavenge the poisoned carcasses I leave them and die, or risk my musket,” he reaches behind him to pat the gun hanging by the strap on the peg in the door, “or … simply go elsewhere, where the pickings are easier.”

A beat.

Beyond their ring of firelight, a vaquero whistles a command to his horse. The cattle low to one another disinterestedly.

“That’s morbid, Cheech,” Héctor remarks.

The dead rats dangle from a hook on the side of the wagon. Chicharrón glances towards them and chuckles, revealing a mouth full of buckshot and holes, like someone’s been practicing their sharpshooting on his teeth. He’s got the kind of laugh that you’d expect to find scraped out of the embers of the campfire, raspy and rough.

He says, “You want my advice? Wherever you go, my friends, kill the rats first.”

 

*

 

Her mother told her once that whatever you could want out of life, Mexico had.

It had beaches and forests and mountains, tousle-haired cornfields and deserts baked the color of cinnamon. It had white sand and banana leaves feathered at the edges dappling down light, fencepost cactus and long-horned steer, jagged peaks wreathed in mist. It had cenotes so deep and crystal-clear you could see the bones a hundred feet down. It had music and food of every type imaginable.

More importantly, she said, the state of Oaxaca had all these things —

But better, and in much more reasonable quantities.

And anyone who tells you otherwise has never been there, got it?

 

*

 

After years of drawing maps for travelers coming off the train, Imelda has a good idea of what her home state looks like. Oaxaca is shaped like a flounder: a squat, bumpy body with pronounced dorsal ridges showing where the southern Mexican Sierra Madres forks into two separate ranges; the wet pine forests of the Sierra Norte, the humid jungle of the Sierra Sur. In between these are the central valleys, where most of Oaxaca’s people still live, centered around the famous archaeological sites. The inhospitable Pacific Coast forms the curve of the flounder’s belly, its tail the Isthmus of Tehuantepec where the land flattens out abruptly.

Travel across the region has always been treacherous — Díaz’s inroad expansion with the railroad had been the first major attempt to connect Oaxaca to the commercial opportunities in northern Mexico, often at the expense of the people who lived there.

For everyone else, there are the same old donkey paths that have been in use since the time of the Aztecs.

“What does it say?” Héctor asks, scraping at the ash inside the ring of stones to check for embers, neckerchief pulled up to protect his face. Someone’s used this site recently.

“I’m working on it,” Imelda answers distractedly.

She folds her papers over, squinting between it and the charcoal etched into the trail marker. Is that cross supposed to be a building or a grave?

“It says there’s a town half a day down that way,” she points, “but the soldiers took everything of value and it’s since been abandoned.”

“How about a well?”

“Can’t tell. But there should be a place to stop before then.” A building of some kind. Or a grave.

She stands up and brushes off her skirts, walking around to the other side of the marker, the one that’ll greet traffic coming from the opposite direction. She flips her paper over. Her family used to give these sheets as guides to the people who rented their pack animals to go overland, but that stopped when the war made paper scarce.

Carefully, she smudges out one or two of the existing pictographs and updates them while it’s all still fresh in her head, so other travelers will know what’s coming up on the road she, Héctor, and Ernesto just came from.

There are campsites like these all through the Sierra Madres, and the smaller valleys as well, maintained by the good will of those passing through. Cheap tin cookware and fresh water in semi-permanent bivouacs make passage through the mountains bearable; lean-tos provide shade in the open fields, the flat cooking stones still hot enough from the day to act like a comal to cook tortillas on. The trail markers let them communicate with each other — pictograph messages left behind with helpful information about the road ahead, since written language isn’t accessible to most people and there’s no guarantee they’ll all understand the same language anyway. Pictures are much clearer.

This one definitely looks more like a building, though.

Although, maybe it’s both building and grave. A trail church with attached cemetery? That’s possible. It’s also possible she’s thinking too hard.

“Ow, hey!”

A loud exclamation from Ernesto’s direction doesn’t distract her, not until he follows it up with:

“Imelda! Your horse bit me!”

“Don’t provoke her, then,” is Imelda’s unsympathetic response, simultaneous with a much more affable “one moment, amigo, I’ll come rescue you,” from Héctor. “What did you do this time?”

For someone who from a very young age has been able to identify the wealthiest churchgoer most in need of attention, Ernesto bafflingly manages to read his horse’s body language wrong. Like, every time. It’s a talent, truly.

Héctor doesn’t have that problem. He is taller than his mare, a fact the both of them have unenthusiastically come to terms with, so they get on. Neither of the brown mares is the biting type, but Imelda’s painted one is. Ernesto keeps finding that out. The hard way.

“How come this keeps happening?” Héctor asks amusedly, inspecting the bite.

Ernesto whines.

 

*

 

From San Juan Albán, they take the Sierra Juárez Road down to Tuxtepec, and from there they double-back to avoid the soldiers and shoot straight into Veracruz, all the way to the sea.

As soon as the pines and the oaks that towered over her all her life thin out and the land around her dries up, Imelda knows she’s past the furthest point she’s ever gone. Everything from here on out — brand new.

And the sea —

Oh, the sea.

She stands upright in her stirrups, catching her hat as the wind rushes up the cliff and tries to pluck it from her head. Even the wind tastes different, like salt, or fish. How can that be?

She throws her head back and barks a laugh, which snatches itself from her throat like a tern thrown off its perch. She imagines it weightless, soaring up there with the other gulls. Below, boats move on the water, angling to find mooring at the docks, and steam engines make clouds against the sky further out from shore.

There’s a scuffle from behind her as Héctor dismounts from his horse, and the next moment, he’s swinging her from hers and they’re spinning in place. Imelda’s whole world turns kaleidoscopic: the sky, the sea, her husband’s hugely smiling face.

Overcome with sudden feeling, she stops them to that they can press their heads together. They stand there like that for a long time, arms settling around each other.

“I can’t believe that worked,” she murmurs. “We did it.”

Los Consequela and Papá Figaro expect them to go north to Jalisco. They’ll have weeks before anyone even thinks about missing them, and longer still before anyone tries to look. That’s long enough to change their fortune a dozen times over.

You did it,” Héctor corrects. “Ernesto and I would have been fine, you’re the one who had to be brave. And clever.”

“I told you,” she laughs, “leave the thievery to me, you’re no good at it.” And then, it just comes right out, “I love you,” and leaves her standing outside of herself, watching the proceedings with frank concern. “I do, I love you.” That can’t be Imelda Consequela, can it? Affection makes her sneeze.

He pulls back to check her expression. His eyes go round. He was probably expecting to hear that word from her exactly once, and only on his deathbed, and only as grudgingly as possible.

Proud to have caught him off guard, she wriggles her toes in her boots in delight.

“Ughhhh,” comes from behind them.

Ernesto, still on his horse, starts making mocking, soppy noises, and Héctor rolls his eyes, sweeping his hat from his head and using it to block Ernesto’s line of sight so he can lean in and kiss her.

They stay four days in Coatzacoalcos, where Mariano Consequela had met her mother all those years ago, where Imelda never would have been allowed to visit. With the sea at their backs, they play at market, they play in the square, listening to the Cubans argue with the Chinese, the Africans with the Mexicans, about imported goods, about Carranza’s depressingly Porfirian trade policy, about the price of oil and whatever it was the Europeans thought was important in 1917. They avoid the soldiers, who all wear Carranza’s stripes — well, they would, here in one of the richest oil ports. When they leave, they leave with coin in their pockets.

It’s a surprise, learning that after years of giving directions and advice to travelers, she knows more than she thinks she does.

She’d never left Sierra Juárez before, and Ernesto and Héctor thought they would have to teach her everything, but honestly, they only ran away from home three times. That does not a comprehensive experience make, and they don’t know half of what they claim to. It causes friction, at first, as Imelda tries to conceal how much she knows so that they can still feel like they’re contributing, before she realizes that she’s treating them the exact same way she treats her aunts and uncles, and how about not.

“… all right,” says Héctor, after she builds the campfire and gets it lit in half the time it took them. He nudges Ernesto, “if the chords don’t work, amigo, rearrange them.”

“… sure, okay,” Ernesto agrees. It will not be the first time she humbles them.

It won’t be the only time they humble her, either. For weeks, then months, Imelda fends off unexpected stabs of loneliness as her life rearranges around her. She didn’t think she would; she spends every waking moment with Héctor and Ernesto, and if not them, then the horses. But she went from being the youngest in a circus of a household to being on her own. It’s overwhelming at times, just how used she was to having a dozen hands to help her with any given task.

Now she just has them. They’ve only ever had each other, so this is something they teach her, and gladly.

 

*

 

Food is difficult.

They knew it would be. With their instruments and their packs, they don’t have the space to carry much more, and wind up buying a lot of their meals pre-made in towns and trying to make them last in the stretches where there isn’t anything around at all. Their foraging skills are basic at best, and everything’s scarce when your country has been repeatedly ransacked by different army factions for half your life.

It’s where most of their money goes. Imelda, feeling their purse dwindle almost as fast as they fill it, grows short-tempered and antsy — or maybe that’s just her stomach, gnawing itself down.

“You’ve never gone hungry a day in your life, is all,” Héctor points out.

His voice is kind as he says it, but Imelda bristles, stung.

“Neither have you!” she fires back. Papá Figaro’s was a lucky place to be apprenticed, for that reason.

His eyebrows pop up, but before he can say anything, Ernesto leans over.

“Remember after the assassination,” he tests the cooking stone, shifting their pan over to where it’s hottest. “When all those people came in, fleeing from the north, and they closed the pass? Our church was full of people and there wasn’t a grain of rice left anywhere.”

Héctor nods at him. “Oliveras said in his town they did away with the peso when the war first started and used cacao beans as currency, since it was much more valuable.”

“Oh, yeah. I’d forgotten about that.”

And they’re off, following a different tangent, and it’s only when the static clears from the edges of Imelda’s vision that she realizes they headed her off before she could say something truly hurtful, instead of just dense. She breathes out, slow, and sits down next to her husband to help him clean the quince for roasting. They’re too hard and too sour to eat raw — Imelda found that out the hard way recently.

He’s right. Casa Consequela practically had an army of its own and Imelda hadn’t thought anything of it, that there would always be her mother or her aunts in the kitchen, working over their metates and making meals for the family or travelers or for San Juan’s feast day. Now it’s just her.

She had come into this assuming that Héctor and Ernesto both would expect her to do the dirty work, being the woman, and that she would have to put the fear of God into them to get them to pull their weight, but it doesn’t come to that. Getting them to do their jobs is not part of her job, she means.

Héctor helps with the cooking, since bad food and bad water rank at the very top of his list of anxieties, and Ernesto is a damn decent tailor, having spent all his childhood charming nuns who would rather steal thimblefuls of unconsecrated wine and read medical texts than focus on repairs from the charity box. He darns socks and plots embroidery detail for their jackets — or at least, he does when no one else but them can see him.

Specific costumes can be rented at the venues where they regularly perform, but there’s one set Ernesto makes special for first impressions, the same deep black of Oaxaca’s best mole negro and ornamented in silver, cut just so on their shoulders that even Héctor, who at seventeen still has the same leggy coltishness he did when Imelda first met him, looks like he has presence. Her skirts have more layers to them than a Spanish cake, and when she spins they draw every eye to them. They’re not light, either, and so they take turns on which mare is currently saddled with the box.

And it’s not just war that’s changed the land.

Signs of the Porfiriato are everywhere, those thirty-five years President Porfirio Díaz stayed in office and drove Mexico into the future by sheer force of will. Mexico City might have been the glowing jewel he held up to the rest of the world, but the rapid changes in economy transformed life even this far south. Everything commercialized.

Farmers, used to producing on a subsistence scale and only making enough to feed their immediate families, found their lands bought up by businessmen they’d never heard of and demands put on them that they’d never tried to satisfy before.

Imelda can see it in the clumsy way the land’s been irrigated, the dun-colored dead spots where it had been overworked for too many harvests in a row, stripping its soil down to nothing.

They stand in line for tortillas with a historian on his way to Monte Albán, the former seat of Zapotec civilization whose ruins lay right outside Oaxaca City, and he tells them he used to have his own land, his own grove, and beyond it a pretty — if odoriferous — cattle pasture. A man from Mexico City came and bought the neighbor’s pasture and convinced him to plant cool-season grass, which proved hardy even in the dry season so they could put the cattle out earlier in the year. The grass, an aggressive strain imported from overseas, killed all the native grasses. The historian found himself with a dead grove less than five harvests later.

“Ay, Díaz,” he says in conclusion, and spits between his boots. “May he find himself dropped off his family’s ofrenda.”

From Imelda’s mother’s time to her, everything changed, and it’s this success — and the failures — that started the war.

Mexico is capable of everything it wants to be. The Porfiriato proved that. But, thirty-five years later, the rewards of that progress still aren’t accessible to the young, the poor, the indigenous: the people doing the work. It’s what drives revolutionaries like Villa and Zapata, who want the wealth redistributed, who want the land returned to the people who know how to work it best.

“Assuming there’s anything left,” the historian says, wringing the sweat from his neckerchief and retying it.

“We’ll succeed, amigo,” Ernesto tells him, because Ernesto always knows what people want most to hear. “You’ll see.”

 

*

 

It’s fortunate that practicing in the plaza was the main way they got to spend time with each other, because their performances change with every stop — they have to, as no two places are the same. They do shows in cantinas and gazebos, or on stages by the well in the center of town under the eye of its patron saint, or on hard-packed dirt surrounded by people if nothing else is available.

But they were the best thing in San Juan Albán — sí, gracias, in the mountains with the music school — and they’re the best thing out here: Ernesto and Imelda, dancing and singing; Héctor on accompaniment. And it never gets old, the change Imelda can see happening in people’s eyes, the shift their bodies make as idle curiosity turns over into the realization that hey, this isn’t bad. This is good.

In Tuxtepec, the owner of the cantina where they play books them for a return trip a month from now, when there will be more people coming through for the feast day festival. In Oaxaca City, a woman hires them on the spot to play for her granddaughter’s quince años, and another club owner books them from there.

“This is good, right?” Héctor slings one arm around Ernesto’s neck and wrestles Imelda into his side with the other. “They know our names!”

“I don’t know, the fame might go to our heads,” Ernesto says sarcastically. “Ow.”

“Don’t be a donkey!”

Before she knows it, they’re doing regular shows in these places, traveling back and forth and becoming familiar faces in the towns and collectives in between.

Oh, yes, that’s them.

The three traveling musicians oaxaqueño, on horseback.

“How in God’s name do you not get squished flat?” they get asked one evening, after they say, No, we’re not soldiers, no we’re not scalpers, we’re musicians.

They’re sitting around a cooking stone, all of them subtly jostling for the warmest spot, and the man who spoke unwraps his tamale in a puff of steam and turns his head so he can chew at it with his few remaining back teeth.

He eyes them beadily. “How do you not get eaten up like the rest of us?”

His daughter, expression full of quiet warning, reaches over and puts her hand over his wrist to still it.

“We had a phonograph, before this all started,” she says, turning back to them. “But nobody has those anymore. They’re too easy to loot. I miss the sound of it — and the ease of hearing music whenever you want. I’m sure other people do too.”

Imelda glances at Héctor and Ernesto and finds them already looking back at her.

The truth’s right there in front of them, and for a moment, they have no choice but to look it in the face: that Ernesto’s dream was to leave the mountains and ride right into Mexico City and dazzle everyone, but that it’s proving impossible to even get out of their home state. The need for money keeps them where they know they’re guaranteed a show, and the threat of violence has them pinned. That by Ernesto’s standards, they haven’t gotten very far at all.

Imelda swallows against a rough patch in her throat.

But it’s Héctor who speaks first.

“We survive the same way any traveling show does, señores,” he tells them softly.

“Anonymity,” Imelda interjects, thinking of the long shadow her uncle casts.

“A good costume,” Ernesto adds.

“And no permanent address,” Héctor finishes.

 

*

 

After performing in a series of small, identical towns all in a chain, they meet the ranchers moving their cattle trains south and find themselves reabsorbed for a leg of their journey.

“This is a very idle pace,” she comments to Chicharrón, and he gives her one of those dry looks.

“Ay, consecuencita, but any faster and we’ll lose the tallow off our stock, and then what are they worth. I thought you’d be glad. You’re safe with us for awhile.”

“Oh, I wasn’t worried,” Imelda says.

And it’s true. In the beginning, she wondered if they were making a mistake, trying to travel without a gun to protect themselves, and it’s true that she’s worried about a hundred different things at any given time, but fear of other people stopped being one of them.

No matter where they wind up, it seems like, they’ve got skills to contribute.

Most people are happy with music, but Imelda’s expertise with horses frequently comes in handy, and once, they share a campfire with an old man with deep, aged pox marks who’d fled with nothing but what he could grab from the church. Ernesto spends the whole evening with him, going over the Latin, so at the very least that would be preserved.

Ernesto by himself is a deterrent, she feels like. Everything about him is just … large. The eye is drawn towards him, always, no matter who else is present. She wouldn’t want to pick a fight with him, either.

(The fact that she picks the most fights with Ernesto out of anyone is not important.)

His shoulders are broad enough, she feels, that she and Héctor can both put their concerns on top of them and he’d carry them.

“No,” Chicharrón allows, watching her. “I guess you wouldn’t be.”

 

*

 

That someday she won’t have them there, or that one of them could be in danger where the others couldn’t get to them — no. The possibility doesn’t even occur to her.

 

*

 

And Héctor —

Héctor loves each group they meet, the stories they have to tell and the songs they share with each other. Already their music is changing, growing, as Héctor learns new tricks and adapts them for their own use.

During the long stretches on horseback, they recite corridos to keep themselves occupied. Corridos are narrative ballads that require only a single guitar or accordion, meant to build up (or tear down) the mythos of whoever they’re about. Imelda bets there’s one for every puffed-up general you could think to rally around by now, and she and Ernesto take turns tossing out the first names that come to mind to see what Héctor comes up with. What about President Díaz’s niece-wife — Delfina Ortega Díaz? Or Pancho Villa’s horse, or that poor girl Juanita.

They all but trip right over a young man running mezcal out of Santiago Matalan, where the soil is so rocky and parched you get the feeling that one good hard rain would wash the town’s roots right out of the earth. Agave thrives in this climate, and so mezcal, an alcohol made from roasted agave hearts and worms, became the main export as a matter of survival. You could throw a rock in the street, she thinks, and you’d probably hit a distillery.

“So you understand why it was in everybody’s best interest to remain neutral and to sell to all factions during the war,” the runner tells them.

He’s Ernesto’s age and he’s got Héctor’s looks, like someone had the general mold of what a human should look like and then rolled it longer and thinner than that. He hunches on the other side of the fire, elbows and knees sticking out like hinges. Acne scars make his face as craggy as the landscape.

“Why the smuggling, then?” Héctor asks curiously.

“Taxes,” the young man says in a tone of deep disgust. “It’s the only way to avoid paying to every armed individual I come across.”

He’d lived in Veracruz until Madero’s assassination, when violence became the nation’s worst epidemic to date, at which point his family decided his aunt in Mexico City would be the safest bet, as she had a gate that locked. It wasn’t, but it gave him a base of operations to run all kinds of interesting teenage schemes.

“That’s where we want to go,” Ernesto tells him, jumping on this. “Mexico City, that’s where we want to — ow!”

“Hold still,” Imelda tells him repressively, and brings her match closer to the tick on his neck.

“And do what?”

“And —“ Ernesto falters. “And — play there.”

He gives them a patient look. The hills outside Santiago Matalan are carpeted with juniper scrub, boughs bent backwards against the ground. The horses keep nosing at the berries and then burring in distress when the needles get caught on their mouths, hopping around and turning to their humans for rescue. Everything smells overwhelmingly of evergreen, effectively masking the scent of alcohol from the chest he’s sitting on.

“But where?” he presses. “There’s a different place for every sound. Surely you’ve discovered that on your travels?”

“He has a point,” as the heat from the match loosens its grip, Imelda catches another blood-sucker between thumb and forefinger, picking it free and squishing it. She doesn’t need to see it to know the face Ernesto is making. “Music serves a different purpose everywhere we go. In the highlands — hold still —“

“— you want to turn God’s head,” Héctor finishes for her, nodding. “It’d be too easy for Him to lose you, otherwise. But in the valleys, you play to divert His attention, because,” he gestures at their wide-open surroundings, “it’s a little too easy to be found.”

“Yes,” the man agrees. “The city’s like that. Each neighborhood has its own sound. I want to do cabaret.”

Their eyebrows pop up.

“You’re a musician, amigo?” Ernesto asks, simultaneous with Héctor’s eager, “What is that? I’ve never heard of it.”

“Composer,” he answers offhandedly, and, “Cabaret’s a stage show, my friend, with this fantastic — fantastic big sound. You know how mariachi has guitars, guitarróns, violins —“

“— trumpets,” Imelda volunteers, and grins when Héctor grimaces at her.

“— yeah. Cabaret is that, but bigger. It’s a big band sound. Listening to it, it’s like there should be fireworks, too, although I don’t know how you could incorporate fireworks into a stage show.”

“I’d figure it out,” says Ernesto.

Imelda cuts another highbrow look at her husband, but he’s distracted; he’s watching Ernesto, who still has his faced turned away from her, but the expression on Héctor’s is its mirror: open-eyed, wanting. A look like that on Ernesto’s face will make Héctor want to give it to him, whatever it might be.

“You know the mariachi man from Jalisco?”

This makes them blink. He can’t be serious, right? That’s like asking if they’ve ever heard of Don Hidalgo.

“I’ve met him,” the man says confidently, and, “no, really,” when they all vent out rude noises of disbelief. “In Mexico City, for the inauguration. They played mariachi music, and who else to play mariachi music than the man who invented it? I want to be like that, but for cabaret. I want to make a sound so unique they have to name the whole style after me.”

Imelda, Héctor, and Ernesto exchange another look, still boggled by the fact the Jalisco musician is apparently someone you can just … meet.

“Oh!” he adds, like an afterthought. “And girls. Girls love a cabaret. Do they go crazy for you out here in … well, in the rural areas?”

“What,” says Ernesto, wrong-footed. “Girls? I —“

“Yes,” Imelda and Héctor say dryly.

He grins. “There you go, then. Mostly I want to write a cabaret so the women I love will swoon into my arms.”

He holds them outstretched to demonstrate, like he expects one to fall from heaven right there.

Ach, Imelda thinks.

He tries to go on, but they’re interrupted by a low whistle from the dark. They sit up, listening. Fainter, underneath that; the creaking of wheels.

The man grins and hops to his feet. “That’s my ride,” he says cheerily. “Look me up if you’re ever in Mexico City, all right, músicos? I’ll give you the tour!”

“Sure,” Ernesto agrees, and then, “Wait, amigo!”

“Yeah?”

“What’s your name?”

“Oh,” and he laughs at himself, setting the chest down and coming back over with his hand extended. “Mucho gusto. It’s Agustín. Agustín Lara.”

 

*

 

The other musicians they meet are not always so friendly.

“Well, now.” It’s a deep voice, pitted, like something heavy dug out of charcoal. “I spot some vermin in my seat.”

Héctor looks up. He’s got an arm hooked over the body of his guitar and his knee jackknifed up, songbook flattened out so he can scribble down what one of the vaquero had just whistled at him, the one that made him stop and point, exclaiming, I like that! Do it again!

Slowly, he puts his knee down.

There are plenty of open spaces around the fire. That’s not the issue.

“I might be,” he allows. “Do you want to share?”

“No,” is the instant response. “Move.”

Héctor shrugs good-naturedly, tucking his songbook away and adjusting his guitar. Imelda budges Ernesto over so there’s room on their blanket for him to join them, but a sudden sharp whistle from the other side of the fire makes them stop.

“Ay, Cheech, come on, let him play. We like him better than you!”

“Who said that?” The old man pivots on his heel, squinting. “Gabriel, if that’s you —“

“He’s right!” someone else shouts, emboldened.

“Maybe we’re all just sick of your songs, Cheech,” the first cowboy says.

“Come up here and say that to my face —“

“I can only get better if I learn from my betters,” Héctor cuts in, smiling. “Come sit with me, don.”

Imelda quirks an eyebrow at Ernesto, but he just shakes his head. Five minutes with Héctor’s enthusiasm and easy jokes can soften even the most wilderness-hardened of men, and if he needs their help he’ll give them a cue. Imelda shrugs agreeably. Picking up Héctor’s cues is what they do best.

The musician in question is Chicharrón, and he’s a squat, cactus-shaped man with ears like pork rinds, and legs bowed into a permanent saddle shape. He’s been ranching, as he likes to say, since before any of their mothers even started feeling the least bit poorly, but these days he rides with the wagon and does the cooking. He can cobble together enough for fifty hungry, dust-beating vaqueros out of what seems to Imelda to be nothing but three eggs and some pine needles.

He was solo guitarist before they came along, and Héctor takes to him the way Héctor takes to everyone.

It’s decidedly not mutual, not at first.

“We’re going to be famous,” Ernesto tells everyone, a little too earnestly, and he chuffs out a laugh like a coughing dog.

“Famous?” he echoes. “Bah, what do you want that for? Anyone can be famous, you’ve seen the horse shit that gets put in the newspapers. Slap a priest, everyone cries moral panic, you get famous —“

“Have you been to my state?” shouts another cowboy. “That’s just Sunday!”

And everyone cackles, Ernesto included.

Chicharrón’s group could probably qualify as an army on its own. Imelda didn’t think she’d live to see the day when cattle had this many bodyguards, but that’s the price of moving such a large quantity of valuable meat across the state — it’s a homing beacon for vultures. In these times, ranch owners are willing to pay extra for the security.

In exchange for the greater protection in numbers, Imelda inspects the horses — challenging long-held habits as she goes, because every cowboy fancies himself a horsemaster — and she, Héctor, and Ernesto play for them in the evenings. There are a lot of local men who get hired for a cattle drive going this way or that, but many of them, like Chicharrón, are in it for life. Imelda meets men from as far north as Chihuahua, displaced by the war; from Guatemala and Peru, migrating to Mexico to seek prosperity; she meets Chinese men who’d been hired to build the railroads before Díaz was exiled and decided they didn’t like not being paid for it.

There are black men, too, los morenos who smile at her with friendly eyes and tip their hats. And, as she always is, Imelda is struck dumb, uncertain how to respond.

Her hair, her nose — these things always give her away eventually. The same thing happens to her brothers if they let their hair grow out long enough to begin to poof. She’s heard it all her life: Mariano Consequela’s children, what a shame. You almost can’t tell, otherwise.

But if she’s too much of her mother for the Mexicans who find it easy to exclude her, she’s too much of her father to be able to greet these men as one of them. Her skin’s even lighter than the Mexican men she travels with — how can she claim kinship to their hardship?

She’s taking too long to respond. The men dart each other rueful, knowing smiles, misunderstanding the reason.

No, wait! Imelda wants to cry. That’s not what I mean!

But what can she say? What can she do?

She doesn’t know how to begin. Every response feels wrong. Nothing she could say feels like it’s enough, which leads to the conclusion that she isn’t enough, and then she’s right back where she started, too paralyzed with concern to do anything. So instead, she comes off haughty or standoffish.

The second day, they set off across the steppe together.

It’s the fastest way to bridge the two valleys, the other being to go down, around, and to come back up, but it has its own hazards. The woody vegetation vanishes completely, and storms rumble through in their mad rush to break upon one mountain peak or another. It fills the night sky with dry lightning, flashing like rifle shots over their heads.

Chicharrón and his men move their cattle across it as quick as they dare, since no rainfall six months out of twelve means there’s little grazing. The ground is tepetate, a disintegrated type of limestone that isn’t very stable.

“Careful,” a man circles around to warn them. He’s from Yucatan, and has earned himself a mocking nickname of Tan Galán, because he’s got the tallest hat out of all of them, and that’s a thing that matters, to vaqueros. “Soil like this, you get cenotes.”

Cenotes. Sinkholes.

Ernesto goes a little starry-eyed.

He brings his mare around so he can whisper, “Imagine building a home on top of one of those — your own groundwater pool!”

Imelda throws him a droll look. Did he miss the “anything built here will wash away” speech they just got?

It’s on one of their brief pauses that Imelda takes the opportunity to inspect a flaw in the pinto’s shoeing, and a different cowboy approaches her while she’s got her head down, murmuring reassurances.

The toes of his boots poke into her peripheral. “Is that a mountain accent I hear?”

Imelda looks up.

He’s got a young, pleasant face with eyebrows so thick they give the impression of two nosy neighbors peeking over a wall to see what you’re doing. She took notice of him earlier; he’s one of the few that cleans his clothes when he can. It might be a thankless task on a cattle drive, but it beats sleeping in flecked-up cow shit every night like the others do.

She sits back, letting the pinto tug her hoof out of her grip.

“I’m from Ixtlán, in the Sierra Norte region,” she confirms. “San Juan Albán, it’s on Sierra Juárez.”

And he says, “But not your men.”

She snorts. “God, no, they’re valley boys through and through.”

“Ah, well,” he agrees with a sigh. “We must forgive them their trespasses, I suppose.”

“Speak for yourself.” Then she lifts her eyebrows, because his accent doesn’t scratch like a matchstick the way hers does, but it’s not valley, either, and he grins back.

“I’m from Veracruz, originally, but railroad work brought us into the mountains when I was young.” He cocks his head. “If Albán is a station town — oh, San Juan Albán? You lot say the full thing every time? That’s unusual. Not weird! Just unusual — then maybe we’ve seen each other before. I’m Gabriel.”

“Imelda.” They shake on it.

“Married to … the big one?”

“The tall one,” she corrects.

“Oh.” He thinks about this, then shrugs and gives the horse a pat, too, since she’s right there. “That’s all right, then.”

Imelda struggles to suppress a smile.

The “big one” landed himself in hot water this morning by calling someone “chamaco” without thinking about it, and the other man — a Guatemalan — took immediate offense, as “chamaco” is something Mexicans can only call other Mexicans. And Ernesto had no business calling a grown man that, regardless.

The cowboys were already derisive of him for being so vocal about his aspirations to fame. What happens in the capital has very little to do with what happens in the rest of the country — towards the end, the golden nugget of Mexico City had been the only thing Díaz had cared about, leaving all the outer states to crumble with the effort of maintaining momentum. Crusty old sell-out.

It’ll do Ernesto good, Imelda thinks, to not be the most popular person in a group for once.

She pushes herself to her feet, and Gabriel automatically moves to help her.

And she couldn’t say what does it.

The way the sun silhouettes him for a moment, maybe, or the familiar way he brushes her skirts out of the way of her boots — and Imelda looks at his jaw, his neck, and blurts it right out.

“You’re a woman!”

Gabriel’s eyebrows go up, but otherwise doesn’t change expression, like this is a mildly interesting observation at best.

“Oh?” he says. She says. “Am I, though? Who decides?”

“But — “ Imelda starts. She doesn’t understand the question.

No one decides. You just are, and then everyone decides everything for you. It’s the same as your land, as your family name. You don’t get to un-decide it. To not be it. Do you?

Gabriel’s steady gaze doesn’t waver.

“Who says?” he repeats. When Imelda says nothing, he straightens and touches the brim of his hat. “Think about it, mountain girl.”

 

*

 

The next day, civilization reappears, in the form of goats peacefully munching away at the tepetate scrub to keep it from encroaching any further onto domesticated lands. After that, it’s signs of irrigation, ill-maintained in the dry months but ready to be pressed into service again. Man, horse, cattle (and Imelda) are all relieved.

Imelda watches Gabriel as closely as she dares. She’s more and more certain she’s right; like recognizes like. But everyone else keeps using masculine endings for him. There’s no hitch, nothing that suggests to her that it’s a euphemism, or that they’re being cruel.

So she follows their lead.

Think about it, Gabriel had said, and Imelda had recognized the tone immediately, because the nuns of San Juan Albán’s order had used the same warning when talking about the forest, its predators, its dangers. It’s the same tone Héctor used, the first time Imelda told him she knew he’d been in Ernesto’s bed. You need to be very careful, they meant. Or you’re going to hurt more than just yourself.

By the third time they meet up with Chicharrón’s group, it’s not strange anymore.

Imelda can have moments of wordless camaraderie with Gabriel about their backaches and their monthlies, all without faltering her endings.

At one point, after they’ve eaten more than their fair share of Chicharrón’s cooking, Gabriel lays down on his face beside the fire and groans, “Why did I do that?”

Imelda pulls her blouse taut across her stomach and makes a face. “I don’t think I’ve been this rounded since —“

— and stops.

She’d almost just made a joke about the baby she didn’t have. She’s never done that before; the grief had been too much to touch, like a wound still puffy and infected.

But Gabriel frowns, squinting at her. “It does look like a whelp,” and then his eyebrows pop up. “Mira, do you want to name me godfather?”

Imelda laughs.

On impulse, she goes and fetches the framed icon of the Virgin of Guadelupe that Chicharrón keeps alongside Benito Juárez’s portrait to guard his wagon. They lay their hands on it, fighting to remain solemn.

“Gabriel,” Imelda says. “Will you be the godfather to my child?”

“Imelda, mi comadre,” his mouth twitches, and so does hers, and they’re both giggling as he finishes, “you honor me. I would love nothing more.”

“Good!”

They quiet down.

Nearby, she can hear Héctor’s voice arguing good-naturedly.

“— come into our state and insult our food —“

She glances over, and sees him making a show of rolling up his sleeves and advancing on the cowboy who’s laughing at him outright. Ernesto snags him by the suspenders to hold him back.

Last week they met an alfalfa farmer who showed them how she’d semi-domesticated grasshoppers. As an alternate source of income, she’d explained to them, as early in the war the porfiristas and the maderistas kept burning fields to make a point to each other, and torched hers no less than three times. Héctor had been enamored with the production — “how clever, doña!” — and not only because she had a good stock of nymphlings that made for excellent roasting, and those were his favorite.

Imelda hadn’t ever had chapulines when they were fresh. By the time anyone in San Juan Albán got around to collecting them, they were adults, and bitter — although toast something with enough chilies and it could mask a lot of sins. But the next railroad stop to the east of theirs, in Zongolica, they eat silk moth larvae, and Imelda likes those. Chapulines aren’t that different.

Softly, she says, “You’re right, you know.”

“Well, yes,” Gabriel allows, magnanimously. Then, “about what?”

“You’re the only one who gets to decide.”

He rolls upright.

Imelda meets his eyes, and after a pause, he smiles, crosses his legs, and passes her a bottle.

“There’s a saying we had in my camp,” he says, and toasts her. “May God grant you longevity, so you may meet the thing that changes your mind.”

 

*

 

She wakes in the middle of the night to find the blanket beside her bare. Before she can decide if she’s worried or not, her bladder makes a demand on her. Grumbling, she kicks the blanket off and gets up. The fire’s been kicked down to embers, and she can make out a distant bobbing mote of light as the guard patrols the perimeter. There are two guards — one with a lantern, one following. In the dark, the man with the lantern is always at a disadvantage, as he can always be seen but can’t always do the seeing, so the second guardsmen follows him to see what tries to sneak around in his shadow.

She finds her husband a moment later — he and Chicharrón are sitting on the wagon step, Chicharrón’s legs swinging over the ground and Héctor’s not. The dead rats dangling behind them make for a skeletal white gleam in the dark.

“— your songs?” she hears Chicharrón say, in that voice that’s had dirt kicked over it more than once. “You write them?”

“I write them,” Héctor quietly confirms.

“Then that makes you a composer. Chamaco, why don’t you settle down in a city and sell your songs to — to, I dunno, advertisers and orchestras? Work on commission.” A beat. “You don’t have to live this lifestyle, always getting sick off campfire food.”

Ah. That’s why he’s up.

Héctor shakes his head. “Have you met my wife?”

Imelda rears up, indignant.

He can’t possibly blame her! He’s the one who sat beside her in the organ loft and suggested she marry one of them so they could run away together in the first place! How can he —

“I’d do anything for her.” He knots his fingers together, bending his head over them. “And my friend, I told you, he rescued me from certain death once. And they’re — they’re more themselves now than I’ve ever seen them, and loving them makes me more … myself. Does that make sense?”

“Aye,” Chicharrón allows. He’s hard to hear over the sound of the blood in Imelda’s ears. “But it makes you sound like a mariposa.”

Héctor’s head jerks up.

“Is that a problem?” he asks, with a sudden hard edge to his voice.

Chicharrón, wisely, says nothing. Imelda stands outside the ring of half-light, watching their silhouettes.

Finally, he says, “Héctor,” and Imelda blinks, because she doesn’t think she’s heard him say the name before, with no diminutive. “If I had a problem with emotional men, I wouldn’t spend my life traveling with them.”

 

*

 

When she’d first seen the coast, down in Coatzacoalcos right after they’d made their initial flight from the mountains, the waters of the Gulf had been teeming with commercial traffic coming to and from the ports. There’d been a lot of shouting, deep foghorns and clanging bells in competition as ships jockeyed with each other for space at the dock, from the big freighters all the way down to the family boats, each with its own little shrine nailed to the mast so a personal saint could be called upon for luck and safe-keeping. Imelda had thought that’s just what it was like.

But along the southern coast of Oaxaca, the ports are fewer and far between, and in many places groves of mesquite trees extend all the way to the shoreline. They pass a sign calling their current stop “Zicatela,” with a warning underneath in Nahuatl. They round a bend and it’s suddenly there, without fanfare — a whole ocean, wide and shockingly blue.

Imelda lets out a great shout of laughter, standing straight up in her stirrups.

The footpath they’re on becomes spindle-thin, and then unspools onto a beach, the sight of which instantly reduces them to little children again.

They dismount and rope the horses together. Ernesto hops up and down on one foot, trying to haul his boot off, which he throws under Héctor’s feet to trip him up and breaks for the water. Héctor spits sand out and scrabbles upright, pelting after him with a cry.

The Pacific is colder than Imelda remembers the Gulf being, but they strip down to practically nothing and spend the whole afternoon in the water anyway — well, Ernesto and Imelda do. Héctor hangs back where the surf isn’t so rough and he can keep his feet under him.

“I can’t swim,” he reminds them waspishly, watching them bob about. “For another — do how much of that you’re probably swallowing?”

“Oh, Héctor, come on!”

“I didn’t let you drown before,” Ernesto reminds him, cutting back through the water in confident strokes. “What makes you think I’d let you drown now?”

The fishing trawlers come in with the tide, and Ernesto slings his arms around Héctor and Imelda and hauls them in close to wave and shout at them, seawater sloshing around their mouths.

Here, a lot of boats also double as homes. Whole families live onboard, the women with their nets and the men with their shotguns sitting slantwise across their knees. They come ashore to investigate, and Imelda, Ernesto, and Héctor build a campfire for them, so they can all eat together.

“How come nobody lives here?” Imelda asks, as they wait for the fish to blacken. “We’ve hardly seen any towns.”

“There isn’t any clean water,” one of the women answers. “If there’s any groundwater you could dig a well to, the mesquite’s already sucked it all dry. Someday, they might find a solution, but until then, the beauty of this coast has to be admired from afar.”

Imelda glances towards Héctor, who looks stricken. They’ve got their canteens, of course, but the horses …

“We can share our tank with you, if you’re low,” the woman says, intercepting their look.

“Oh, gracias,” Imelda says fervently.

The children eagerly gather around to help water the horses, enamored and terrified in equal measure by their size. Just as curious, the mares snuff at them, leaving damp patches on their heads and clothes, and Imelda listens to them laugh and race about as she tries to smooth down her own hair, turned wild from the saltwater. Without her mother to help her wrap it, it’s nappier than she’s used to.

The sun sinks down over the sea and then disappears entirely, leaving their fires the only oases of light amidst dunes of sand. The children drowse in their parents’ laps and everyone else drinks the beer brewed onship, water being the precious commodity that it is. Héctor picks at his guitar, peeking up through his eyelashes at the fishermen who listen politely, and changing chords until they stop looking polite and start looking interested. Ernesto follows his lead, and Imelda hums where they prompt her to, but doesn’t feel the need to escalate it any further than that. The night is beautiful enough already.

“Why is it that color?” blurts out one of the young men on the edge of the fire.

Imelda had been watching him; mulish, silent, and only half-participating with everyone else. The iron’s hot there, she thinks, with a sudden bolt of fellow feeling — soon he’s going to decide whether or not he’s going to buck the family trade, and strike out on his own.

Héctor turns the guitar on its side, letting them all admire it; the bone-white color, the mosaic border, the jovial smiling skull. No one’s ever seen a guitar like it.

She hopes she gets the chance to tell Óscar and Felipe about this, someday.

Her husband looks around, taking in everyone’s faces, and begins to smile. Recognizing it, Imelda exchanges a look with Ernesto, and they settle in to listen.

“Tell me,” Héctor begins. “Have you ever seen a cloud forest?”

 

*

 

Five days later, Ernesto is bored again.

The countryside gets too dull and stifling like this, the towns too similar to one another, and it reminds him that he’s got a dream soaring like a child’s kite somewhere far above his head, and they aren’t getting any closer to making it come true.

“Some of these places are so … traditional,” he complains. “Like the Porfiriato wasn’t even here. Are you sure we can’t take the train? Just to try it?”

Imelda and Héctor give him identical horrified looks.

“We are Oaxacan,” Imelda tells him. “And the railroad is Díaz’s sell-out.”

“I’m just saying —“ Ernesto tries, shifting around in his saddle.

“You are not a sell-out,” Héctor says firmly.

He sighs.

It’s such a theatrical sound that his mare gusts out a huge sigh of her own, startling a laugh out of all of them.

What surprises Imelda most is how much he changes at times like this, when they are three days from a single other living soul. No musicians or fishermen, no cowboys or soldiers, no other travelers at all. No witness to his performance but the snakes, the scrub, the slivers of sky blinking at them between the trees.

It’s not that he performs less, exactly. She doesn’t think Ernesto is capable of not acting like there isn’t a spotlight on him at all times, that great omniscient third eye that monitors his posture and evaluates his tone.

But if he has to perform, it seems more … genuine, she guesses.

His laughs are different. He’s more willing to defer to Héctor and Imelda when they suggest something, actually listens instead of just waiting to interrupt. He’ll hold Héctor longer, over Héctor’s protests of, “we cannot both dance, my friend, who will play the music?”, to which Ernesto says something Imelda pretends not to hear.

If she hadn’t grown up with Óscar and Felipe, it might bother her, the way they’ve got a shorthand language that seemingly makes sense only to them, the only two native speakers, the way it doesn’t even occur to them that they’re excluding her and they don’t need to. But wanting to belong has been the main staple of Imelda’s diet for as long as she’s known; she’s used to it, and besides, there are some things she doesn’t need to be a part of.

As for how the road changes her, she’s less comfortable with examining that.

Loneliness abides by no rules or sense, coming and going no matter how she tells it she doesn’t have the time.

Go away, she says to the feeling in the pit of her stomach. We’re much too busy.

She might have left the mountains, but there are times it feels like she brought her whole chorus of shrieking Consequela cousins with her anyway. That same giant scrutinizing eye that watches Ernesto unblinkingly, except hers is a semi-circle of relatives in her head, calling judgment on every decision she makes and every slip where her guard comes down. It’s as if she has to justify herself to every last one of them before she can even start a task, and damned if that doesn’t suck up half her energy.

They stop longer than they plan to in northern Oaxaca when the children working in a mango grove flag them down on the road.

“Please, please, señores,” they surround the horses. “Do you know a horse doctor? We have a sick horse, she won’t carry the baskets and we’ll get in trouble, please.”

Héctor and Ernesto look to Imelda.

“I am a farrier,” she tells them, sliding from the pinto’s saddle. “Which is the closest you’re going to get to a horse doctor. Now, where is she, niños?”

Once they bring her under the shade of the trees, it’s easy to see why their mare refuses to shoulder any of the sacks; as soon as Imelda lifts the blanket and gets a whiff of what’s underneath, she knows what the problem is. “Saddle sores,” she tells the young faces gathered around her, and when they all look stricken at once, no, it probably isn’t any one specific person’s fault, it’s just that nobody gave them a proper education on how to take care of their animal. That’s what she’s going to do. Who’s listening? Good.

She leaves them with a good quantity of salve for the sores, and instructions on their care, and in return, they foist a large sack of mangos into their arms.

“Won’t you get in trouble?” Héctor juggles with it. “This is a lot!”

Loudly, they assure him it’s fine, it’s fine, and once Imelda counts the number of children versus the number of sacks they’d been relying on the horse to carry, she realizes she and her men are the dividend.

Ernesto eyes it. “What are we supposed to do with this?”

“Say thank you,” Héctor and Imelda scold him, and since they do it in unison, the look on his face is comical.

It’s too late in the afternoon by the time they get back on the road, so they stop for the night at a crossroads town in the Cañada district set up where the path into the Sierre Norte and the path down into Puebla meet. As they unsaddle the horses, they divvy up the mangos, keeping some and sending Héctor to the market before it shuts down to sell the rest.

So she’s not expecting it at all, the clod of words picked up, packed down, and thrown at her back.

“Well, if it isn’t the littlest Consequela!”

Imelda startles, swinging around. The pinto mare tosses her head and whickers disdainfully.

The man approaching her has a salesman’s smile plastered on, showing off his gold teeth. He’s the same shape her uncle is: a big barrel chest propped up on legs that seem much too small to support it.

Oh, no.

“Teodoro!” Imelda gathers her skirts up and curtsies. “Señor. ¿Como está usted?”

“No need to be so formal with me, girl, I’ve known you since you were knee-height!” He clomps to a halt in front of her, thumbs hooked over his belt. “I always thought it was a shame your papá never got to know you, I don’t think he ever thought he’d have such pretty children.”

His eyes drop to her boots and then come back up again, taking in the whole picture.

“What are you doing here?”

Imelda’s jaw is stuck. She works it back and forth, trying to unhinge it, to come up with a falsehood fast enough. She wanted a longer grace period than this, before her family starts asking their contacts about her whereabouts and why she hasn’t come home yet. Teodoro’s been selling horses to her uncle since before the start of the war — he’s a battlefield scalper if there ever was one. He wouldn’t hesitate to tell Tío Consequela that he saw her in Cañada with the musicians when she’s supposed to be in Jalisco.

Tío Consequela needs never to learn where they are. His spite alone could —

No.

Deliberately, she turns her back on Héctor and Ernesto, stepping away from them.

To their everlasting credit, her two other heads need no further instruction as to what the third is doing. When one of the brown mares nudges at her shoulder, Héctor grabs her reins and turns her head away, scraping and saying sycophantically, “Sorry, sorry, begging your pardon, señorita — señora,” he corrects himself at Imelda’s glare.

She slips her arm through Teodoro’s, drawing him away.

“How’d you know it was me, señor?” she asks, and treats him to her very best smile.

He chuckles. “I sold that pinto to your uncle, señora, years ago.” Up close, she can smell a rotten tooth on his breath, the same way she could smell the saddle sores on the horse before she ever got a good look. “You were the one who tamed her, then?”

“My uncle said I couldn’t do it, so I did it,” Imelda confirms, and this time, he laughs for real.

The next night, as they’re waiting for the last of the mango to finish grilling, she says to Héctor and Ernesto, “I hadn’t thought of that. That news of me might get back to my uncle.”

They exchange a look.

“What do you want to do?” Ernesto asks her. Whatever punishment her uncle decides on will affect their reputation, too.

“Camouflage, somehow,” Imelda says, and then, “let me think about it.”

Next, they pass through a section of flat land between the two pine forests where the towns grow larger and the availability of food less sporadic. They meet Chicharrón’s group coming from the other direction.

When she makes her decision, it’s Gabriel she opens up to first.

“It’s not unheard of,” she points out, when he just sort of wrinkles his nose at her. “It wouldn’t be that unusual.”

“You don’t have to, though,” he stresses. “Your children will have his name, and yours; that’s belonging enough, right?”

It makes her heart ache along its seam, being known like that.

Still. “It’s more a matter of who I don’t want to belong to.”

And so, with a feeling not unlike clipping excess growth off a horse’s hooves, she sheds her names. The three traveling musicians from Oaxaca? Ay, you’re talking about Ernesto de la Cruz and the Riveras.

“Imelda Rivera? Just Rivera?” Chicharrón’s eyebrows make an interesting shape. “No other families or places? It makes you sound naked, consecuencita, like an orphan.”

She rolls her eyes. “What, and ‘Chicharrón’ doesn’t?”

He huffs. “I will have you know that I am of the very finest Castellan blood,” he tells her, and Imelda snorts and laughs in spite of herself, watching him strike a stuffy pose, pulling the end of his mustache to a fine tip and then twirling it.

She grins. “No wonder you and my husband get along so well.”

“We do not!” he flares up indignantly, and she laughs even harder.

 

*

 

San Pablo Guelatao is less than a day’s ride away from San Juan Albán. Imelda looks at the donkey path leading uphill into the mountains, and there’s a second where she swears she can smell it — the cloud forest, like damp iron and moss. Home.

Then it passes, and she finishes scraping the mud off the sides of her boots. The red brick underfoot is brand new, inlaid in neat lines. It’d be a good place for dancing, she thinks, and drums her heels a few times to test it out and gets in one good spin of her skirts. Then she crosses the square to join her men under the statue.

Without tearing their eyes away from the sight, they shift to make room for her.

The three of them stay like that for a long time, standing underneath Benito Juárez’s statue with their hands over their chests, like they’re worried their Oaxacan hearts might start leaking if they don’t hold them there. It’s here, it’s this hardy little speck of mountain soil where not even the Spanish language lasted long enough to take root, that the greatest president Mexico has ever known was born.

“Do you think they’ll do this for us?” Ernesto asks Héctor, dreamy and wanting. “Do you think someday we’ll be so famous there will be statues of us in Santa Cecilia?”

They contemplate this, faces upturned so the oxidizing Juárez can cast his gaze upon them, the Mexican constitution laid protectively over his knees. He’s got heavy brows and stern Zapotec features, and around them, local traffic continues on unhindered. Dewy-eyed pilgrims must come here all the time.

Imelda spreads her hand open, pretending to read a plaque.

“— dedicated to the two greatest gasbags in all of Mexican history —“

She cuts off with a shriek when Ernesto snatches her up and slings her over his shoulder, to Héctor’s loud protests.

“Take that back! Imelda!”

 

*

 

Maybe Chicharrón is right.

Maybe she just thinks she’s special. Maybe everyone feels that their family has persecuted them in some way and she’s not special at all. Maybe every one of her cousins went through this and got over it, and it’s a sign of her weakness — no, her self-absorption that she didn’t. Maybe it’s a test, and she failed it when she left the Consequela part of her name behind.

But Imelda scrapes the last of the filling out of the pan and there at the bottom she finds she has no desire to belong to them.

It’s not that they were miserable, although you could see it in Ines, or violent, although sometimes they were, or very awful — except for the fact that if they had been honest with her, treated her like a daughter instead of the child they must always pat, corral, and control, then she wouldn’t have lost her baby. She wouldn’t have had a baby to lose, but she did, she had, and that’s on them.

They’re performing in the square outside an inn that’s become one of their usual places, and the owner comes out when they’re done and says, “Here, they developed the photographs.”

Imelda hadn’t even realized they were being photographed last time, except here they are: Ernesto, Héctor, Imelda, all in costume with their arms around each other, a little blurred with movement.

It’s the first time she’s seen them all together, how they must appear to the people looking at them.

When they haul their instruments back to the tiny room at the back of the inn, Imelda wordlessly takes a pin and sticks it to the wall. Not needing to ask where she’s going with that, Héctor fishes through his pack, then pulls out a prayer card with a benevolent Mother Mary on it that a quinceañera’s aunt had been handing out during her celebration in the square two towns ago. For lack of any other option, Ernesto tears a page out of their songbook and sketches a quick portrait of Benito Juárez as he’d looked in San Pablo Guelatao, and they hang them up alongside.

Then they stand there, shoulder to shoulder in front of their three portraits.

The comfort of it is immediate, as welcoming as a hug.

 

*

 

Imelda insists on Sunday attendance. Neither Ernesto nor Héctor argue with her; their lives are simply too unpredictable to risk it.

No matter where they go, no two churches are the same. Imelda finds nothing that compares to the cathedral from her hometown, even when they visit places that are older, richer, and larger. Not unlike shoes or horses, churches are weathered into their shape by the people who need them. Some are made of clay, some are made from wood treated with a dangerously flammable resin (because that never ends poorly,) and others still are just a sanctuary candle and altar protected by a tent flap on a muddy field.

Some aren’t even churches at all, but places that garner a strange holiness of their own — they pass statues of saints left behind in the overgrown plazas of abandoned towns, the paint worn away from their toes and the hems of their robes by the devotions of travelers. To see the butterflies migrate feels like a saintly thing — the best, Imelda hears, are the monarch butterflies in Michoacán, but some species will come south to Oaxaca and that’s an astonishing sight, too. And where the tropical forests on the windward side of the Sierra Sur catch all the rain, it leaves flat arid land to bake in remorseless sunshine on the leeward side, and there are cacti that grow forever, gaining a semi-legendary status of their own. People dedicate them to the saints and make shrines out of them.

Taking inspiration from her brothers, Imelda folds flowers and animals out of leftover corn husks to leave at these places.

It’s one of these times, while they’re breaking the day’s journey at a stream so the horses can drink and she folds a fish from the corn husk wrapping that had been her breakfast, that she finds herself missing her cousins’ children. This was the kind of task she used to engage them in, back when they were her responsibility.

She wonders what they’ve been told about her. Will they remember her at all?

“You’re thinking hard.”

She looks up, just as Héctor drapes a wet cloth across the back of her neck. Sighing with relief, she presses it down into her skin until the water runs under her collar, and opens her eyes again when he drops onto the ground next to her.

Smiling, she lifts the fish up alongside his face.

“Perfect likeness,” she announces, and he vents out a rude noise and hooks his elbow around her neck, pulling her into his side. They scuffle and kick at each other, giggling about it.

He darkens quickest of the three of them, and when they settle against each other she laces their fingers together, turning their hands over and noticing the contrast where he’s pushed his sleeves up. Because the memory of them is too close, she has no defense against the chorus of her Consequela aunts, whining like a mosquito in her ear: you’re already so light and lovely, it’s hardly noticeable, meaning her mother’s nose and hair. Just don’t marry anyone darker than you, you don’t want to make it worse.

She shifts her head against his, getting a better look at him.

His eyes are closed, free hand miming a chord change against his thigh. She listens to him hum through it once and then at twice the tempo to test it again.

“Higher,” she corrects him, but he’s already shifting up to mend the sour note, and she says, “Yes, like that.”

The arm around her shoulder tightens, thankful.

As far as she can tell, this song’s about God, and prayers to God — not the little prayers of little people and all those candles they leave in the cathedral, but about how people are the prayer. It’s Mexico on the genuflector, Mexico in a foxhole on the battlefield. She is the supplicant and her people, each and every one of them, are a prayer she sends up to God; the entirety of their lives, their spectacular joys and their miseries, too.

Imelda listens as Héctor runs it through all the way once, and he makes a startled noise when she bumps their foreheads together, presses in with feeling. They hold each other, half-sitting, half-embracing. Further downstream, she can hear the horses snorting water at one another.

“You all right?” he checks.

“Fine,” Imelda answers. Her chest hurts.

And the reminders about her uncle are still fresh in her mind, so it’s overwhelming her all over again. The only husband she’d ever imagined for herself would have been someone like Teodoro, probably; a horse-smelling businessman her uncle wanted to subtly insult while still pretending to do a favor for, offering him his least-useful niece. She had no real dreams of a good marriage.

Instead, she found Héctor. This is who she is vowed to for her whole life. She married him. He married her back.

And she knows him. Knows his hands and his habits and when he’s happiest. She knows he loves her, for being the first person who picked him first, who met Ernesto and nodded politely at him and then kept choosing Héctor. She knows he loves Ernesto the way some people love Christmas, joyfully and without artifice or care. She knows he’s never liked his father, whose idea of parenthood was seeing how little he could get away with doing before Héctor would leave him alone. She knows he’s too good a musician to play in small Oaxacan towns forever.

The song is stuck in Imelda’s head all the next day, and on Sunday they listen to a priest defend the excesses of the church, like they don’t live in a time when it’s difficult for the average person to squeeze a living off their own land. He stands in the pulpit with its carved wooden faces of the apostles and tells them of the archbishop’s house in Mexico City, newly-refurbished with their alms money, and he claims it’s necessary. Afterwards, she exchanges the same pinched look with her men, and wonders if, like people, Mexico sometimes sends prayers to God that are more a slap in the face.

Next is La Ventosa, a town nearing the southern coast.

It’s surrounded by rolling hills, a golden savannah grassland new to Imelda’s eyes, and backed in the distance by thundering falls. Fat, tall palm trees grow out of the elbow-high grasses to wave to each other.

The sight of it expands in Imelda’s chest, like her heart is trying to spread itself over the comal of the sky and absorb it all at once, cook it until it’s tender.

On impulse, she slides from the pinto’s back. The grass tickles the undersides of her arms, and she breaks into a run.

“Héctor,” Ernesto’s voice says. “Your wife’s doing something.”

“So she is!” Héctor responds, and she hears the thunk of his boots as he hops down from his horse, too.

“And … we’re stopping.” Ernesto pulls his horse around. “Why are we stopping?”

Spinning in place, Imelda waits until her husband’s close enough to see her face, then raises it to the sky. It’s a formidable, powerful blue, stretching in every direction like a hymn. She looks at him, and lifts her eyebrows.

When they fight — and Imelda knew they would, you cannot live in someone’s pocket and not chafe at them — or when the problems of their lifestyle seem insurmountable, the idea ridiculous, the violence too sickening (she never wants to see another bloated hanged man as long as she lives, because avoiding the soldiers doesn’t always mean you can avoid what they leave behind,) he’s always the one who ends it first. He’d take her arm and say, “Imelda, what color is the sky?” and she’d know, immediately, where he was going with that. As long as the sky is blue, this is where she wants to be, and who with.

“What are you doing?” Ernesto calls to them.

“One moment, amigo,” Héctor answers, closing the distance. “I have to kiss my wife.”

And he does.

 

*

 

The following day, they stop outside a trail church so Imelda can pay her respects to the abandoned saint.

It’s all in disrepair, but there’s a post outside for the horses, so they dismount and tether them there. Lichen’s grown thick on the trees, bromeliads in sunset colors sticking out of the elbows and knots in the trunk, orchids with their white aerial roots propping themselves up on the branches. Their flowers look like offerings themselves.

They circle around to the front, admiring the stonework. The windows have been pried out, which is a pity — Imelda bets they would have been beautiful.

Behind them —

A shout.

They spin around, just as a haggard woman lifts the horses’ reins off the post.

Ay!” Imelda yells.

She meets their eyes, drops the reins, and gives the nearest mare a prompting slap on the rump.

The brown mare blinks —

— and shifts her hindquarters to the side, just out of reach.

The pinto, more high-strung, does jerk and dance away, giving her head a few panicked tosses as she realizes she’s free. By then Imelda has flown across the yard, so she whinnies and comes over to intercept her, wanting reassurance. Imelda catches her reins and whirls on the now-embarrassed woman.

“What was that supposed to accomplish?” she demands, heart pounding.

“Don’t want you here,” comes the mumbled, mulish response. She has a flat nose and thin eyes, her slate-grey hair visible under her shawl. Her accent isn’t mountain or valley; Imelda isn’t sure it’s Oaxacan at all. “Want you gone.”

“We’re not staying long, señora,” Ernesto tells her.

“We just wanted the saint’s blessing,” Héctor adds.

They flank Imelda on either side. The pinto snuffles at them, then gives Ernesto a bite, seemingly just out of habit.

Imelda narrows her eyes.

Shrewdly, she asks, “What don’t you want us to see?”

The woman shifts her weight. The other brown mare picks at the grass around the base of the post, then lifts her head, looking supremely unconcerned.

She looks at her, then the other horses, then gives a sudden dismissive flap of her hands.

“Bah! Fine.”

When she disappears inside the church, they follow. She pulls her shawl off and hangs it up, revealing a faded, well-made dress underneath; the embroidery pattern on the front is of two jackrabbits kicking at each other, clearly done with a deft hand. She gestures them through.

“Oh,” Ernesto breathes out, shocked.

The church is packed with crates. Long, skinny boxes lean up against each other, shoved down aisles and into corners. The ones that aren’t in crates have had blankets thrown over them, the edges of their frames sticking out through the fabric like bones. Unable to help it, Imelda wades into the pews, craning her head to see the uncovered ones; a glimpse of textured oil paint here, a Castellan woman’s severe face there.

Héctor’s the first to speak. “You’re guarding them.”

The woman nods. “They came for the big hacienda houses first. We tried to get as many out as we could. I don’t want them winding up in some carrancista’s holiday bungalow. They belong to us.”

Imelda wonders if she knows that Carranza won. That the carrancistas are just called the army now.

“Who? Guerrerans?” Héctor guesses, and oh — right, that’s the accent.

“No. Mexicans.” She shakes her head. “Rich men can’t keep a thing like that. It’s not right.”

She tells them the rest of the story over dinner, how they packed what they could and carried what they couldn’t and fled from looters, out of Guerrero into Oaxaca, and here she’s been ever since, discouraging travelers and waiting to hear when it’s safe to go home.

“I used to think that independence was a mistake,” she tells them. “That after we got rid of the Spanish, we should have stayed separate states and governed ourselves. What business do the Guerrerans have, I thought, paying the debts of the Sonorans? Or the Oaxacans, for that matter,” she gives them a nod. “Our whole lives — in upheaval. This artwork, this history in danger because we had one government and it failed us at every turn.”

“That sounds like a good reason to hate them, señora,” Héctor offers diplomatically.

“No, it doesn’t,” she retorts. “You belong to your land before you belong to anything else — even your family, even God. There’s never a good reason to hate your country. Only good reasons to change it.”

 

*

 

“— no, no.” Héctor flips onto his stomach. “I like that, say it again.”

He stretches his arm out, palming the body of the nearest guitar until he reaches the strings and plucks out a few helpful notes.

Imelda pauses, collecting her thoughts. It’s all still inside of her, the way she felt seeing the golden grasslands and the distant waterfall all blanketed by that blue sky; how something as simple as giving your adjectives the right ending can make Gabriel smile; what it was like to walk among all that art and know that the Guerrerans could have looted the hacienda houses for money or valuables, could have pawned the art off, and instead they’re keeping it all safe for a time when Mexico will want it again.

It’s a feeling that keeps expanding, coming so close Imelda can almost reach out and touch it —

Ernesto lifts his voice up to join hers.

“— never knew I could want something so much, but it’s —“

“— you,” says Héctor, simultaneous with Imelda’s “— true,” and they glance at each other and laugh. The spell breaks, and Héctor rolls away from the guitar, but Imelda knows she’ll see that come up again in a song later.

“I could do without the rats, though,” Ernesto muses.

Imelda darts Héctor a sharp look, but it’s already too late.

His teeth peek back at her, and he takes up the jaunty schoolyard chant, “— in Mexico the snake bites, the toad’s got horns, the scorpion stings —“

“— but the mosquito delights you by buzzing its wings!” Imelda finishes.

“I knew you were going to do that,” Ernesto complains. “You’re both such children.”

A thud and a yelp follow; Héctor had thrown his boot at him.

For a long time after that, nobody speaks. One of them needs to get up and put their guitars back in their cases, bank down the fire, but at the moment, none of them move.

“She’s right, you know,” Héctor says suddenly. “We keep talking about where we can make the most money, who will pay us most, but there are people that support the arts — and then there are people who just want to own it, stick it somewhere. I know which I’d rather play for.”

With a scoff, Ernesto rolls to his feet.

“That attitude, amigo,” he says, “is why you leave the dreaming to me.”

Childishly, Héctor blows a raspberry at his back.

 

*

 

Imelda leaves the instrumental competence to the two who went to school for it, but she does accompaniment when they ask her to: tambourines, if they’re available; maracas, if it’s that kind of crowd. You don’t need an education from Papá Figaro’s to keep a beat.

They’re a couple months on the road before they sit her down and put the guitar in her lap, smiling when she darts them a wide-eyed look of disbelief. They haven’t offered to teach her to play, not once in all the years they’ve known her, and in her darker moments, Imelda figured it wasn’t intentionally malicious, just that they considered her (and more importantly, her voice) one more instrument in their arsenal: you wouldn’t teach a trumpet or a violin how to tune a guitar, either, would you?

“Go on,” Héctor props an elbow on his knee, grinning. “I bet you know more than you think you do.”

She starts to see their plan: they want her to have a basic knowledge, so Ernesto can hand his guitar off to her and take center stage with his hands free, and Héctor wouldn’t have to carry the tune alone.

Proficiency won’t happen without serious study, but on quiet nights they work on it until Imelda can play the simplest parts of their main set.

But her favorite is that time after the practice has clearly dissolved, and it’s just her with her back propped against her pack and the silver-white guitar in her lap. She pulls at her hair until it comes down and she can feel the breeze on her scalp — and sometimes under the collar of her husband’s spare shirt, when everything she owns is washed and currently spread out to dry on the cooking stone. She picks out an easy waltz, one-two-three, for Héctor and Ernesto, who dance with each other as the campfire slowly pops its way down to embers.

They’re not serious about the dancing any more than she’s serious about the playing at this point, so Imelda sees the moment as it shifts; the slide of Ernesto’s hands from Héctor’s hips up under the high cut of his jacket, fingers spanning out to hold him by the ribs. He crushes him close, then; a tight, full-body hug, full of feeling, and Héctor laughs and rearranges his grip. They say nothing, but their smiles for each other are soft.

It’s not envy, exactly — she’s got enough experience with that one to recognize it no matter the camouflage it wears — but neither does she know what to do when it’s happening in front of her.

We don’t need anyone’s permission, she’d said once. To be you and me, you and him.

She believes it. She just wishes she knew the etiquette.

Her fingers fumble the switch then, and the note goes sour, knocking them all out of the moment. Even one of the horses tosses her head, although she might just be dislodging a fly.

“Sorry,” Imelda mumbles, flattening her hand over the bridge to still the strings, killing the sound.

A scrape of rock underfoot, and then Héctor crouches down in front of her.

“It’s okay,” he says.

“It takes patience,” Ernesto adds, “and thankless hard work.”

Héctor doesn’t break her gaze. The corner of his mouth lifts, and, very quietly, he responds, “All things worth loving do.”

And Imelda will feel it then, the need to capture these moments, to stick them in a glass jar with holes punched in the lid for them to breathe — some instinct telling her this is the happiest she’s ever going to be.

 

*

 

“What are you afraid of?” Ernesto asks her on another occasion.

They’re sitting back-to-back, each strumming something different on their guitars. She feels itchy and sticky all over, encrusted with dirt and sweat from having to cross fields overworked practically to the point of being desert again. But her belly is full and that almost makes up for it. A farmer had a pot of rice pudding bubbling nearly to the brim — waiting for her sons, she told them. She wanted a hot meal ready for them when they came home. Soldiers, you know.

Food had been scarce for days leading up to this, and Héctor’s sick again, laid out and shivering unconscious on the other side of the fire. They keep getting up to make sure he’s still sweating.

“Hmm?” she says distractedly.

“Héctor. When he tells you that he loves you, you always make that face —“ he scrunches his up to demonstrate. “Like it’s something stuck to the bottom of someone’s shoe.”

“I do?” Imelda blinks. Then, because it’s obvious, “I don’t like affection. I don’t trust it.”

“But why?” he presses.

“I don’t know. Who does? It’s embarrassing.”

“But why?”

She scowls. “How about you leave me alone? What do you care? It doesn’t have anything to do with you.”

A snort. “That’s a lie.”

Just like that, she hits on it.

“Because how can I let myself like it, being loved. I stole everything else that’s important, what if I’m stealing that, too, and you’re going to want it back? The last thing — the last thing I want to be is that person you talk about like, ‘I can’t believe I wasted all that time on someone like that’.”

“You think that’s … something Héctor’s going to say about you?”

Well, when he puts it like that —

“No, of course not. It’s just … ”

She’s afraid. Of course she’s afraid, how can she not be? Her family considered it a waste of time to invest much of anything in little Imeldita, it’s hard not to carry that expectation into every interaction she has. And they know it — Héctor and Ernesto, they’re orphans, too, so used to hunger that they don’t know how to stop grabbing for it.

Ernesto is silent for a long time.

“But you love him?”

“Of course I do,” she snaps, sharp enough to make the horses shift, their tethers creaking softly. And, “don’t you?”

“Of course I do,” he echoes. He turns his head, looking at her from the corner of his eye, the way you do with someone who doesn’t seem to realize they’ve done something stupid. “But I don’t get the luxury of whether or not I accept affection in public.”

Ah.

Imelda hadn’t thought of it like that.

In fact — she flattens her hand over the bridge and twists around so she can look at him dead on, feeling suddenly like she’s hit on something.

Once, a tectonic age ago, she’d accused him of being oblivious as Héctor stood back and let him have everything. Is this, all of this, Ernesto’s way of trying to give him something back? After all, it’s Héctor who likes all these small places, all these people with their seemingly small lives, who always finds something to learn from them. This — Ernesto is indulging him.

He shifts, too. She can feel how carefully he draws breath. “You know what we used to say to the younger students,” he says, “whenever they played too softly because they were afraid the louder they played, the more obvious their mistakes would be?”

Imelda doesn’t, until suddenly she does. Of course she’s heard them say it before:

“Sing it loud, sing it proud, or don’t sing it at all.”

 

*

 

It was Teodoro who put the idea into their heads, and with time, they develop a formula for new places where they haven’t performed before.

They’ll split up. They send Imelda into town ahead of them to plant herself in the crowd.

She’s not so far removed from the days where her every move had to be closely chaperoned by her brothers, so there’s still something of an illicit thrill to this, standing in a market by herself and correcting people when they address her — sí, señora, thank you, she’s married — and letting them come to their own conclusions for why she’s alone now. Widow, maybe. War makes those with the same callous disregard it makes orphans. She listens to the viejitos smack their gums, asks the women around the water pump about shortages on which goods, and watches with idle curiosity as Héctor and Ernesto paste up flyers for their show.

Wherever they’re accommodated, whether it’s square or cantina or open field, her men get a couple of good songs in to let their crowd know they know what they’re doing, and then one of them will say, “okay, now I want all of you to join in on this one,” playing it up like it’s going to be another folk song that everyone knows.

It’s not, of course. It’s always something Héctor wrote.

So they’ll start, playing to the way everyone leans expectantly forward — and flounder when they’re met with silence.

And that’s when Imelda comes in.

“We want everyone to have that moment we did,” Héctor tells her as they outline the plan. “When we heard you for the first time.”

“The way everything stopped,” Ernesto adds.

Héctor nods. “Everyone should have a moment like that, when they encounter something so beautiful everything stops moving.”

And so, by drawing Imelda onto the stage with them, suddenly they’re playing with the crowd instead of to them, because she’s one of them, she’s been drinking with them all night. It’s easy for Héctor to fade into the background then, to let Ernesto and Imelda stand center stage and sing to each other. That way, the crowd will get to watch them both — handsome to look at, astonishing to listen to, young enough that it’s easy to see your sons and daughters, or yourselves, in their shoes — falling in love in front of them.

It’ll make perfect sense, then, when Imelda leaves with them the next morning. It’ll make perfect sense, when next they come back through, Imelda will be their wife. The only unexpected thing is whose wife she is.

(“It’s still a daily surprise to me too,” Héctor says blithely, and steals a kiss while she’s still spluttering.)

But in the places they pull off this show successfully, they become endeared to them, each town convinced they’re where it all came together.

Oh, yes, they’re marvelous musicians, aren’t they? Did you know without us, they wouldn’t have met?

“Do you think when we’re famous, all these places are going to start talking to each other and say ‘heyyy, wait a minute’?” Imelda wonders, turning around so one of them can manage the zipper of her costume.

Ernesto snorts.

“Act confident enough,” he tells her, and in his voice she can hear years of experience in sweet-talking nuns (and failing to sweet-talk Bernice,) “and they’ll let you write whatever history you want.”

 

*

 

Imelda shifts, looking up at the ceiling as she tries to catch her breath. What she had mistaken for cobwebs up in the beams is actually a fine, machine-made netting. She isn’t sure why the inn felt the need to install it. Insect netting, perhaps? In her hometown, they used fruit traps to keep the bugs down. Every grandmother had a different recipe.

She moves her head along the blanket. There are three crosses nailed into the mantle over the doorframe. Two are newer, but the one in the middle had clearly been part of somebody’s rosary once, much older and worn. She wonders how it wound up here.

“You know,” she muses aloud, “it’s too bad there isn’t something that combines … the scope of a radio with the presence of a stage.”

“… hmph?” Héctor manages.

She darts him a smile. That’s a masterful feat of eloquence, she’s rather proud of him.

“I mean,” she says patiently. “I think that’s where Ernesto would excel best. Shows are good, he would love the radio if we ever got to see one in person, but combined …”

She trails off.

A blink, another hazy slice of time passing, and then Héctor sleepily puts an arm around her thigh and tugs her close enough to prop his chin on her hip, watching her with his eyes at half-mast. The headboard’s up there, the foot of the bed is over there, they should rearrange themselves so that they align with one or the other instead of just lying all crooked where they fell. Imelda lets her eyes drift shut instead.

She had looked forward to this the most, she thinks. About being married. To ask for this without shame, and to have it whenever she wanted.

The road, of course, took that fantasy and neatly punctured it.

Maybe it’s because they can see each other whenever they want now, and the urgency to steal time isn’t as desperate, not when there’s too many other things demanding their attention. The environment is another factor; the first time she rolls Héctor onto his back on their blanket by the fire and thumbs his mouth open, she winds up with bug bites in enough unmentionable places that it turns her off trying again. And Ernesto’s proximity — it’s not something they discussed, it’s just what started happening, is that Imelda only takes Héctor to bed where Ernesto cannot see them, and likewise, Ernesto and Héctor never let her see what they get up to.

Still. It’s too bad no engineer, Zacatlán or otherwise, can find a way to use the leaping energy in her skin, and Héctor’s, the way it feels thrumming, powerful, electric, alive when they’re like this, hungry for each other and risking any surface willing to hold them. Maybe that’s the force that binds the world together, and that lecture on the earth’s magnetism was just that — hash.

She laughs at herself, scrunching around on top of the blanket.

“Do you think they’ll make something like that someday?” Héctor says.

“Hm?” She’s distracted.

It’s his turn to cut a smile in her direction. “Like cinema that can be broadcast like a radio signal. Great big radio tower, itty bitty little people dancing and singing,” he waltzes his fingers across her hip and flank to demonstrate. “Science,” he concludes.

She thinks about it. “Ernesto would love that.”

“Oh, he’d be insufferable,” Héctor agrees, wrinkling his nose. Laughing, Imelda curls into him, her husband, never mind the angle, and resigns herself to the crick in her neck she’ll have tomorrow.

 

*

 

“— we tell him?”

“Ay, chica, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t already know.”

“He —“

One of the brass section grabs his instrument and shouts to the others, drowning out the rest of the sentence. She tunes back in to hear, “— should know. It’s not right.”

“There.” Ernesto steps back, surveying his handiwork. “That’s better.”

The inner curve of his thumb is dark with Imelda’s lipstick. He’d stopped her to fix her make-up, and she patiently stood still as he corrected the line of her mouth, trusting him more than herself because the only mirror available had been a rusty, handheld thing from one of the other bands’ suitcases. She hadn’t thought anything of it until the whispering started.

When Héctor comes back, he takes one look at the strange smile on her face and says, “What’s wrong?”

She jerks her thumb. “They think you’re a cuckold.”

His eyebrows tick, but he doesn’t even glance in that direction.

“Oh, is that all? They’ll always think that,” he says dismissively. “They thought that in San Juan Albán, too, before we were ever married. It’s only a matter of time, they think.”

“Héctor.” She frowns.

He darts her a quick, reassuring smile. “I’m not worried you’re going to leave me for Ernesto, Imelda,” he says with wry emphasis, and hearing it said out loud is so absurd Imelda splutters. “If you did, I’d give it five days before I was in some morgue saying, ‘no, señor, I have no idea how he wound up with so many stab wounds, that’s impressive.’”

Héctor.”

And: “I only have the one knife, and it’s too good a knife to waste on that.”

“The only thing,” he catches her then, sliding an arm around her waist, “anybody sees, is how beautiful you are, how handsome he is, and how very much I am not. And if there’s one thing greedy, covetous people are willing to believe, it’s that everyone else is as covetous and greedy as they are.”

“So adulterers want to think — “ Imelda starts, then clamps her mouth shut.

She hadn’t meant to say the word. It’s not what they are.

Something sparks in his eyes. His smile curls in her direction, a small creature seeking warmth. “Goes to show what they know, hm?” he tilts his head, leaning in, so the question is mostly posed flat against her mouth.

She lets him plant a playful kiss on her lipstick, trying to control the smudge, and then gives in to impulse. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she hauls herself up against him and kisses him deeply, inelegantly, until the entire brass section starts loudly hooting. Afterwards, he has to reapply it and correct it back to Ernesto’s standards. They rub fruitlessly where the color’s haloed all around his mouth, laughing and oblivious.

The next morning, she finds the wives of the other musicians up early, shaping masa for their comals. She approaches them with a smile.

“Buenos días. Do you need help?” In her experience, cooks always need help.

They exchange a look. “Oh, no!” says one, in such a bright tone that the other one pulls her shawl up to cover her mouth, her eyes laughing. “We don’t have enough to share, gracias, señora.”

This is too much for the other wife, who barks out a laugh that she muffles, turning away.

“That’s not what I … “ Imelda tries, but they’ve already put their backs to her. A moment later, she flushes. That had been a euphemism, hadn’t it?

Humiliation flips over into fury. She wants to pick something up and throw it at the back of their heads.

It’s not me! she thinks. I’m not the one wandering in and out of my husband’s bed! You can’t punish me!

Blind with rage, with a feeling in her throat like embarrassment has it caught in a spring-trap, she heads back the way she came. She finds Héctor boiling water to sanitize it, Ernesto with his back propped against his pack and yawning hugely. They’re discussing placement for a song they’d nearly bungled the night before.

Without greeting, she picks up Héctor’s arm and slides in underneath it, belligerently burying herself against him.

He doesn’t stop talking, but after a moment or two of feeling her tremble, he must give some kind of command to Ernesto with his eyebrows, because she hears him lever himself to his feet and come over. He wraps his arms around them both, protective and solid and warm, and Imelda shakes, and shakes, and tells herself she doesn’t need anyone else but them.

 

*

 

The pictograph on the trail marker tells them where to find water — it used to flow parallel to the trail, and then something about a dam upriver, choking off the water to this spot? Imelda isn’t sure — and so Ernesto takes their skeins and takes their horses and tells them he’ll be back. Héctor builds up the campfire so it’ll be ready when he returns, then gets out his guitar. A string’s gone sour, and he’s been itching to replace it all afternoon. Guitar strings had been one of those things that had proved notoriously difficult to find on the road. Imelda watches him, tongue stuck in the corner of his mouth in concentration, and feels overpulped and fond about it.

She’s got her own chores, though, and so they work in silence alongside each other as the wilderness around them chatters to itself.

When she left home, she’d remembered to pack a knife and nibblers, but nothing to sharpen them with. When they got dull enough that she found herself needing more elbow grease than finesse to tend to the horses’ hooves, she started kicking through the stream beds, keeping her eyes peeled for any good waterstones. With their finish and fine grain, they’ve been doing the trick for her ever since, at least until she finds something better — she has a vague memory of seeing Chicharrón sharpening his butcher’s knives on a stone wheel, which he spun using a foot pedal.

She has her head bent over this, taking care not to get her fingers, when Héctor suddenly scoots into her space.

“Hey,” he says.

“What?”

“Hey, señora.“

“I told you — !“

“Can I borrow this?”

“Yeah, sure,” she’s already flipping the knife over, passing it to him handle-first, “why — mph!”

The rest of her question turns into a muffled exclamation when he turns his head at the last moment, kissing her flat across the mouth.

He pulls back, showing all of his teeth, and it’s like flattening a page and seeing the imprint of the next page’s text underneath; here’s her husband, and here’s the sixteen-year-old boy he’d been, always borrowing this or that so he’d have an excuse to stop and talk to her at her family pew.

“You — !” she says sharply. “Héctor Rivera! You give that back!”

He hops to his feet with a laugh, darting out of her reach —

— and then comes to an abrupt halt.

Imelda has just enough time to register how fast his face drains of color, and then hears a boot scrape behind her.

“That,” a voice drawls out, “is an awfully pretty guitar.”

Her heart plummets into her stomach.

Slowly, Héctor’s hands go up.

“Señor,” he starts, and then his eyes tick to the side, and he corrects himself, “Señores, what a surprise! I’m so glad you noticed!”

That’s two men by Imelda. And, behind him — a third man materializes out of the trees, his teeth showing. Still on the ground with her makeshift whetstones in her lap, Imelda steals urgent glances up through her eyelashes. The one man she can see is unarmed, unshaven and unwashed, with a threadbare patch in his jacket from where he’d torn his army stripes out. He rolls his shoulders, threatening. She can’t see the ones behind her, but — she knows the sound of a rifle makes as it’s comfortably settled into a man’s shoulder.

“What do you think, boys?” says the voice over her head. “Instrument like that’ll fetch a price.”

The whites of Héctor’s eyes show.

“It’s much better played than it is sold, I promise,” he tells them cheerily. He gestures. “Why don’t you join us for a meal?”

Three men, one gun.

It’s the first time anyone’s truly tried to rob them, and Imelda knows with a sudden rush how stupid she’d been, insisting to Chicharrón that they had nothing to worry about. Ernesto is a good five-minute hike away. Without him, all Imelda’s got is Héctor, and he can’t throw a punch to save his life.

They’ll figure that out soon enough. All their attention is on Héctor now, because Imelda’s got her head down, and if there’s one thing Mexican men are trained to ignore, it’s working women.

“Nah,” says the first man, and there’s a click —

— and Imelda spends a single, molten, shotfire moment wishing desperately that she had Chicharrón’s men here, or Ernesto and Ernesto’s big shoulders —

— and then she shifts her grip.

 

*

 

“You did what?” Gabriel gapes at her.

“Stabbed him,” Imelda answers, and steals another marranito cookie from his satchel; gingerbread cookies in their distinctive puerquito shape, sold to them by the kids they’d met on the trail earlier. She bites into it and thinks about it, then says around a mouthful of pig snout, “Lost my good knife. I’m still mad about that.”

 

*

 

Héctor hauls her up. His hands shake wildly as they skate up her arms.

“Are you —“ his eyes up close are huge, frantic. Blood slicks his neck from chin to the collar of his shirt. ”Imelda, are you all right?”

“— what? Yes, I’m fine,” she says.

With a detached sense of curiosity, she looks down at her hands and finds herself holding a rifle. The stock of it is bent — did she do that?

No — no, she was aiming for the second deserter, standing right behind the first. She’d wrenched the gun free from the man who was screaming and swung for the man who wasn’t, but he ducked. It wound up colliding with the trunk of the tree behind him. Ah, yes, there’s the gouge. The poor tree.

She tosses it aside.

“You’re bleeding,” she remarks.

Empty now, there’s nothing to distract her from the creeping sensation in her hands, the sense memory — plunging the knife through fabric, through skin. It had gone in like butter, and without any kind of plan whatsoever, she’d dragged it up as hard as she could towards his groin. It’d jarred in her hands, and then ripped out of her grip. The man reeled away from her, howling and —

“I —“ Héctor’s hand goes to his chin. “He — the other guy — he had a ring. Hit me. It didn’t — it doesn’t —“

She frowns. “It’s a deep cut, mi amor, you’re covered in it.”

For some reason, this makes his eyes bug even worse.

“Me? Imelda! You’re — look at you!”

He gestures, and, still feeling more remotely curious than anything, Imelda lifts her hands. They’re an interesting color, smeared to her elbows.

Oh. He must have bled on her. Carving him open might have done that.

Irritated, she purses her lips. “That’s it, I never want to see another soldier as long as I live.”

Hey.”

There’s a soldier by the trail marker.

Héctor and Imelda all but catapult into the air. They put their backs together, hearts jackrabbiting.

This one’s on horseback. His uniform’s in much better shape, and he wears villista stripes on his shoulder. He blinks at them. “Pardon me. Did a couple jóvenes come this way? Deserters?”

Frozen in place, Héctor darts Imelda a quick look. There’s a flap of skin hanging loose from his chin, still sluggishly oozing. Blood coats Imelda’s hands, none of it hers. She glances at them once, then lifts one and points.

“That way,” she says, politely. “One of them’s injured.”

“Gracias.” The soldier gathers up his reins and spurs his horse in that direction.

They listen to his hoofbeats pound away, crashing through the bits of underbrush hanging over the path, and then look at each other, wide-eyed.

Villistas,” Héctor moans, grey with fright.

“We’ve got to go,” Imelda agrees, and picks up her waterstones, tucking them into her apron pocket. Next are her nibblers, and then Héctor’s guitar, which she shuts back into its case. Her knife is — well, still stuck up a thief’s leg, unfortunately. That’s a damn shame, she’d had that knife since she was big enough to tuck a horse’s hoof between her knees.

She looks at her husband, who’s just standing there.

Héctor.”

He looks back and her and then says, with a note in his voice like something small and feathered and completely terrified is caged behind his teeth, “Ernesto.”

Her hands drop to her sides.

“I know,” she agrees, and there’s nothing she can do as the forest comes alive around them. Soldiers materialize out of the trees. Within ten minutes, they’re surrounded.

 

*

 

Like Héctor’s parents, Pancho Villa had been a maderista in his youth. He eventually broke faith and formed his own army.

Héctor rarely ever mentions his mother; his father, even less than that. Imelda only clued in that they’d been rebels from the things Ernesto let slip, and from what she knew about how President Díaz fell out of power.

Díaz feared that if Francisco Madero were to campaign against him, he would win, and his rational response to this was to exile him and keep him under house arrest. Madero circumvented him by writing to and funding individual rebel cells no matter how remote, including the one in the heart of Oaxaca’s central valleys, where Díaz was trying to build his railroad. Díaz, famously, laughed when he heard of it, Madero’s army of vaqueros, chickpea farmers, and railway workers — without knowing that he’d be fleeing for Spain before the year was out.

Héctor’s parents did not live to see Madero succeed in overthrowing the government, but neither did they live to see him assassinated eight months into his own presidency, either.

So it goes.

In the chaos that followed, as everyone raced to murder everyone else before anyone could seize power at all, many of the maderistas melted into Villa’s army. They operated primarily in the north; Villa’s closest ally, Emiliano Zapata, led the Liberation Army in the south.

The zapatistas, in Imelda’s experience, were all rag-tag, hit-and-run raiders, indiscriminately pillaging friend and foe alike. They’re what her cousin Ines lived in fear of. They’re what Imelda and her men drag their horses off the path to avoid. They’re men and women who want their land returned to the people who labor on it.

So she’s not expecting it, when the soldiers march her and Héctor back the way they came, the way the road bends and suddenly —

A war camp.

No. Not just a war camp. This is an organized army.

The first thing she notices is the size.

It’s a dizzying number of horses, tents, and cannons, men shouting and directing each other as they finish setting up. Little boys scamper around underfoot, and boys who look barely a day older than them stand apart and watch with haughty self-importance, their guns slung over their shoulders and bandoliers of bullets buckling under their own weight across their skinny chests. That seems to be the distinction between boys and men: not age, but your own musket. Later, someone will tell her that what he has here is only a fraction of what Pancho Villa used to command when the war was at its worst.

The second thing she notices is the women.

Wives, mostly, because if your choices are to follow your husband or wait at home for the next raiding army to burn you alive or abduct you, most women chose to follow their husbands.

But most of what Imelda knows about camp women comes from the would-be soldiers who stood around on the train platform, boasting while they waited for the next recruiter to show up, and so has a preconceived notion of what women in a war camp do. When she passes the women bent over their metates, who blink at her in surprise — she wasn’t given to the opportunity to wash, so her arms are still smeared with blood, quickly turning tacky with the humidity — and then smile in welcome, Imelda puts her head down and walks faster. She doesn’t want to be associated with them. If she doesn’t act like them, she won’t be treated like them, right?

Behind her back, the women dart knowing looks at each other. They know that game.

Up ahead, she spots a cluster of men, and behind them —

Her pinto mare!

She starts forward, intending to close the distance at a run, but Héctor hisses in warning and makes a grab for her. One of the soldiers gets there first, however, closing in expertly from the other side and swinging her right off her feet.

“Hey!” Héctor protests.

“Let go of me!” Imelda snarls, and kicks at his shins. “That’s my horse!”

Her pinto, and the brown mares, too. And —

They hear Ernesto before they see him.

“— be there, gentlemen,” he’s saying, in a voice Imelda recognizes down to the bone; it’s his showman’s voice. “I assure you —“

The soldier manhandling Imelda whistles sharply, and the ring of spectators parts.

Ernesto looks up, and the expression on his face goes suddenly sharp, focused, a knife-point so fine it’s invisible. They must make more of a sight than she thought; Imelda with blood on her arms; Héctor with blood on his face. He’s standing there with the horses’ reins in his hands — talking fast to keep the villistas from commandeering them for their own needs.

“What,” he says, with an uncanny calm. “Happened.”

Imelda gets tossed forward — clearly, her captors think she’s going to lose her balance and fall to her knees first thing, but Imelda’s been hurtled across stages by men stronger than this soldier, and pirouettes, pinning him in place with a curdling glare.

Beside her, Ernesto reaches for Héctor first. For half a heartbeat, Imelda thinks that she’s going to have to step in as distraction, that Ernesto’s going to put his hands under Héctor’s face because she knows what that looks like on him, but self-preservation kicks in at the last second and he pulls Héctor in by the elbow instead.

“I was only gone for five minutes!”

“In our defense, we were left unsupervised,” Héctor responds cheerfully, grinning down at him. All of his tension is gone. He knows exactly where he stands in the world again. “Imelda stabbed one of the deserters.”

“He still has my knife!” she flares up, rounding on the other soldiers.

Like Consequela uncles, they form a loose, judgmental semi-circle. They all have the self-important air that comes with making the decisions they expect other people to follow, and more tassels on their sleeves than the others do, so she figures that makes them marginally more important. But why does it take this many of them to take a travelers’ horses —

No, wait, she realizes suddenly. They don’t want the horses.

They want Ernesto.

He’s not their prisoner. They’re going to recruit him!

Imelda blinks, then chokes back a laugh.

There are some things in this life she knows instinctively: one, that children will always keep secrets from adults, and how good they are at it depends on how fast they’re forced to learn; two, that pork fat in tamale batter makes for a fluffier filling; three, that Ernesto de la Cruz would rather die than be a common foot soldier.

“This is going to be an ugly scar, amigo,” he’s saying, with admiration, studying the skin hanging free from Héctor’s chin.

“That’s all right, I was looking for an excuse to try to grow my beard back.”

“… you’ve never had a beard in your life. A patch, maybe.”

“Then it looks like I’ll have to grow a patch.”

“Good luck with that,” Ernesto gives Imelda an openly apologetic look, and her heart does something awful, like be tender about it.

“Haven’t you got them yet!” she flashes at the villistas, to cover for it. “I wounded one of them for you, it can’t be hard! And I want my knife back!”

“They’re not — ?“ says one of the men. His mustache is long, well-oiled.

“No, they’re just musicians,” answers the soldier who’d dragged Imelda in. A moment later, their packs and instrument cases thunk on the ground beside them. The pinto mare spooks, and tries to hide her entire bulk behind Imelda.

Héctor draws himself up.

Gone is the uncertainty and the uselessness from the campsite, the Héctor who refused to move forward or back because one meant leaving Ernesto and the other meant leaving Imelda. A Héctor who has them both is a Héctor who can do anything.

“Just musicians!” He feigns indignation. “Amigos, we are more than just musicians. We are entertainers.”

He flashes them a smile: all teeth, friendly and cajoling.

“And that,” he draws them in, Ernesto on his right, Imelda on his left, “is why you should hire us!”

 

*

 

They find the deserters. They hang them. Imelda does not get her knife back.

It had, by all accounts, been a boring march so far, coming down by train and then by foot to help the zapatistas clear the occupation in the south. Even a hanging doesn’t provide much distraction — after all, sentencing deserters to death isn’t fun, it’s just an unpleasant warning — but fortunately, they’d stumbled across a troupe of traveling Oaxacan musicians at the same time. That should be interesting!

It’s like being with Chicharrón’s group, almost — only with more wounded soldiers, more women, and less cattle.

And the villistas put Imelda on edge. She’d never felt that way with Chicharrón’s men.

Pancho Villa is the last one to join his camp that night and the first to leave again in the morning. Ernesto rouses them out of their blankets to get them to stand outside the paddock with him and the younger boys, who are easily starstruck. Ernesto fits right in.

From what Imelda can see from her distance, the man astride his horse with reins in hand and the other propped on his hip, talking to his lieutenants, bears a marked resemblance to Ernesto himself; big enough that every eye is drawn to him first thing, so charming and self-assured that he doesn’t need to ask for anything twice.

Ernesto likes him. Immediately.

Imelda dislikes him. Immediately.

Over the next several days, every soldier she meets tries to change her mind. They’ve all got stories of his battles in the north. He’s a film star, too! Surely you’ve seen those, they’re wildly popular!

But it’s Ernesto who tells her just how much Villa hates having the women in his camp. Never mind that they’re the ones who scout ahead for campsites so that hot food will be ready for the rest of them when they arrive. Never mind that they tend his wounded and bury his dead. That’s all invisible to him. He detests them the same way you’d detest having lice.

(Imelda dodges getting saddled with these tasks. That she has to talk down other women down to do it is something she’ll feel bad about later.)

“He says,” says Ernesto, chortling, oblivious to Héctor’s discomfort and Imelda’s bristling indignation. “If you’re down to your last bullet and you’ve got to choose between shooting an enemy’s horse and shooting his woman, shoot the horse. It carries more than the woman can.”

 

*

 

The war camp is also the first place Imelda sees a movie.

She knows more about it than her men do, she finds, because her brothers had made it one of their obsessions when they were young. They’d created two dozen little frames, painstakingly painting scenes on very thin glass, and set them inside a rotating disc, so that when you set the disc into motion the spinning images gave the impression of movement. The first “film” they made was the Annunciation; an archangel descending upon a distinctly annoyed-looking teenage Mary.

We didn’t use a model for her at all, her brother Felipe had said, lying through his teeth.

Ach, go piss in a bucket, Imelda said back, to cover up how impressed she really was.

But the villistas have their own cinematographer traveling with them, in addition to the regular photographers and a correspondent for one of the few rebel newspapers still in print, and he’s the one that arranges the tent for the viewings — keeps them from getting up to other kinds of trouble, he says with a wink.

In those days, movies were usually less than three minutes long and silent.

The first that Imelda sees, crowded underneath the blacked-out tarp and canted up onto her tiptoes as the projector clicks loudly behind her, are instantly recognizable: a wedding party processing through town, a baby’s baptism, a shot of a plaza set up with bowers for a saint’s feast day. But for every one so familiar it could be from her own life, there are just as many that are incomprehensible, like the one of an electric trolley trundling down a street in Mexico City (“if they want to kill pedestrians so badly I know four easier ways offhand,” grumbles somebody behind her.) The opulence of the city elite watching a parade in their pearls and suits makes Imelda acutely aware of her hair that hasn’t been washed in a month, the roughness of her whole body from living on horseback.

The mutinous murmur from the men around her tells her it’s not just her. The inequality here is stark.

That might, she thinks, be the point.

The most haunting of the cinemas is the one of their own, the young men with guns held alongside them pressing in shoulder-to-shoulder and beaming, women smiling uncomfortably from the bedsides of the wounded. It’s an eerie thing to see, villistas still grinning and moving about, because everyone filmed here is dead. That camp, Imelda learns, got pinned down a year ago by Carranza’s government army, who slaughtered everyone, down to the camp women and their children.

They’re all quiet afterwards, filtering out of the tent. Imelda keeps looking over her shoulder, like she might see them there; grainy, faces shadowed by the angle of their hats, still smiling.

If you catch someone on film, are they caught there forever?

“It’s no different from what we do with our ofrendas,” Héctor blurts out.

They stop walking.

He squints against the sunshine. Imelda steps in, fixes his necktie.

“I mean, really. If you think about it. We put our relatives’ photos up every Día de los Muertos so they can come visit and walk among us. We can’t see them, but it’s got to be like that, hasn’t it? A film is like an ofrenda, but in motion.”

A beat.

“Some day, all film will be an ofrenda, if it outlives the people in it.”

“That’s morbid, compadre,” Ernesto complains.

That unsettled feeling follows them all the next day through the trek to their next stop, where the women have scouted on ahead and started making pits to cook over. They’ve got the same kind of resourcefulness Chicharrón has, Imelda’s noticed: the ability to somehow scrape a meal out of anything.

The government controls the transport of the main staples: rice, wheat, corn. It’s how they tried to choke the rebels out in the early days of the war, stopping every shipment slated to pass through faction territory and claiming it needed to be inspected. The delay lasted so long, of course, that the food was often spoiled by then, which the government immediately turned around and claimed was the reason the rebels needed to be stamped out: look at what they try to export as edible! And these are the people who want to direct Mexico’s future!

It wasn’t just the rebels who suffered, of course. Imelda remembers a span of about six months when she was thirteen where San Juan Albán had no wheat, no flour, no bread. Even now, it’s a pinprick of a thought whenever she sees a stall of pan dulce in town, or like now, watching women deliver rolls to their lounging husbands and sons. This is precious. This is valuable.

“— see that this is the Mexico we’re willing to die for,” Ernesto’s saying.

There’s at least a dozen soldiers sitting around them, listening, because that’s what tends to happen when Ernesto starts using that voice. A lot of them eat like they think they’re still at home, Imelda notices distastefully; like they think their mothers are going to clean up after them — except for the girl on the end, sitting on an overturned pot and cleaning her gun. Imelda is very, very aware of her.

“And,” Ernesto continues, “sometimes kill for. They knew that.”

“Ay, we all know that,” a soldier boasts.

“I’m sure you do,” he allows gregariously. “But —“

“I don’t know if I could kill someone.”

Imelda blinks, and turns her head. Usually when Ernesto’s in a mood to pontificate, his second head seamlessly picks up his cues. But Héctor, one arm looped around Imelda’s shoulders so that she’s tucked possessively close — does he realize he’s doing that? — is using the wrong tone for that.

“If it came down to it,” he elaborates. “I don’t know if I could do that.”

Ernesto’s lips purse. There’s a shift among the soldiers, a sudden solemnity where she’d been expecting more jokes.

“It’s hard,” volunteers a boy her age. “Until it isn’t. You know what needs to happen. If you’re looking at a man and he’s looking at you and it’s you or him, you seize your moment. You’ve got to.”

He looks to her to Héctor to Ernesto, all of them listening intently.

“If you don’t seize your moment when it comes to you, then you’re dead.”

 

*

 

Like detritus caught in a rainwater rush, they travel along with the villistas as far as Puebla, where President Carranza is trying fruitlessly to pry the city of Zaragoza from the hands of the Liberation Army. The whole city is littered with pockets of zapatistas who’d been on their way to bolster the main resistance forces in Morelos until they encountered the government army. The sight of the villistas pouring in to aid them has the same effect that a sunny day would in San Juan Albán — a sudden awareness of every last blessing you have.

Once, they’d all been on the same side, Carranza and Villa and Zapata, but Carranza was Díaz’s generation, old money and old policies, whereas Villa and Zapata were young men who’d grown up in the Porfiriato and knew nothing but progress.

They knew what Mexico could be, if only that opportunity was evenly distributed to those most in need of it, and it drove them from the inside out, the way certain songs would to Héctor or Imelda or Ernesto. It sung them.

Here, says the graffiti painted on overturned train cars, on buildings, on the banners in the zapatista camps.

Here, the people demand, the government obeys.

You have to seize it and MAKE IT COME TRUE.

During the celebrations, after, a few earnest young men hang a bandolier of bullets around Imelda’s chest — for safekeeping, they insist — and when they sing, their love for their country, their fear for it, cracks their voices the same way thirst splits a pine tree.

 

*

 

Sometimes —

Sometimes, she’ll wake and find a hand curled over her hip, from where Ernesto has slung it across Héctor’s body — for warmth, they say, for convenience, it’s sensible to put their blankets together so the fire doesn’t blow embers on them and my nose was running, Héctor, and your neck is very warm, and the nights get cold in the mountains, whatever anyone says — and sometimes, when it’s so late there’s hardly anyone left in the cantina besides the poor músico trying to make a go of it on the stage, Héctor and Imelda make a show of pulling Ernesto up and spinning him around, and it’s just an excuse for them to get their hands on each other. Stealing time, still.

Indecent! shrieks the chorus of Consequela aunts in her head. A girl with her bare arms around boys like this would have been ruined in San Juan Albán.

Shut up, Imelda thinks back at them, and turns her head against Héctor’s shoulder.

And other times —

— and these are the very best, they are the whole reason, she thinks, for why she tolerates everything else —

— other times, she aches so much she thinks it’ll kill her.

She didn’t realize that freedom could be a thing that lives inside of you, that sometimes it stretches and takes up every inch of space available, crushing down your lungs and heart and visceral insides to make room for itself.

There are days, even through the agony in her tailbone and her miserable thirst and the places on her body where the sweat never dries, she feels so giddy she could lift right out of her saddle. She’d never touch the ground.

 

*

 

“Ay, bienvenidos, travelers!” choruses the innkeeper through the archway, once they’ve stabled the horses. “I’m afraid if you’re looking for something to eat, we’re pinched. No meat. No flour. We only thing we’ve got left is eggs.”

“We’re all right, doña!” Héctor responds before Imelda or Ernesto can chime in. “No worries. We were wondering if anyone here is hiring entertainers?”

She comes out onto her stoop and squints at them. They’re in their Sunday best: their first-impression jackets that Ernesto tailored, Imelda’s multi-colored skirt and bright flowered crown. Their guitar cases sit at their feet.

“Ay,” she says again, and then with a sudden, unexpected recognition, “are you those three traveling musicians? Performed at Doña Bonita’s in the city two months ago?”

Héctor flashes her a smile that’s all teeth, dazzling and earnest, and stands up taller.

“How did you know?” he calls.

“She swears by you. That’s settled then. There’s a space for you, let me call my son. ¡Órale! Yes, you!”

They break formation to follow her direction and Héctor catches their hands, giving them both a helpless, delighted squeeze. Imelda and Ernesto grin back at him.

The best act they’ve got is one that Ernesto choreographed for them. Like his music, his choreography is hit-and-miss a lot of the time — except he has a bad habit of switching suddenly in the middle of a set, leaving Héctor and Imelda to wing it and try to keep up. It’s frustrating, but it’s not worth picking a fight over, really; he reads the crowd better than they do.

This one is a play, featuring Imelda in a charro jacket and spiffy pants, being wooed by Héctor in her skirts.

They aren’t usually paired together. Ernesto has too much stage presence to be relegated solely to musical accompaniment and Greek chorus, but they way all things are most hilarious when they’re true, Imelda’s loud and girlish refusal as Héctor plays the bear with increasingly heavy-handed advances has them all in stitches, seeing the role reversal for what it is.

“How did you even think of that?” the innkeeper’s son asks them, once they explain the set-up they’d need.

He can’t keep his eyes off Imelda’s legs, clad only in Ernesto’s pants. They keep straying to her thighs, then jerking away. To be honest, she doesn’t know how men do it. There’s nothing covering her rump except a layer or two of fabric! Shapely fabric. No wonder men get nothing done!

“Your own life experiences contain more inspiration than you’d think, niño,” Ernesto answers, winking at his companions sidelong.

Imelda leans over, and when Héctor turns towards her obligingly she whispers, “I knew we were going to regret telling him how we met. Now all of Oaxaca’s going to know it, too.”

“Let’s hope that’s the only life experience of ours he borrows for fame,” her husband responds, unbothered.

It’s hard to stay angry, because the turn-out is better than they anticipated. The innkeeper with exactly three egg dishes left in her larder is pleased. The pay, this time, is handsome.

“No, no, don’t congratulate me,” says Héctor afterwards, once they’re in their own clothes again. He waves his hands. “I wrote the music, he did all the staging, and — have you met my marvelous wife?”

 

*

 

She doesn’t know what does it — if someone gave them the evil eye or they were accidentally passed salt overhand, but when bad luck catches up to them, it’s in Michoacán.

The place they stop is a small, red-tile town along the easternmost border, and it reminds Héctor and Ernesto of their hometown; something about the way the mountains look, heaped up along the skyline like mounds of brown panela left there beside God’s sugar spoon on a saucer, and the way the palm trees poke their heads over the buildings to wave at each other.

Imelda figures they’re not going to waste time with it, just restock their supplies and go, but Héctor stops and says, “No. Let’s do a show.”

Ernesto throws his mare’s tack over the post — she’s already muzzle-deep in the water trough, blowing bubbles in relief — and looks at him.

“A — why?”

Héctor says, “Don’t you think they need one?”

In the months since they left the villistas, they haven’t yet found a road into Mexico City that wasn’t controlled by them or other factions. The closer you got to the capital, the more trigger-happy the soldiers become, so Imelda and her men have gone in one great loop around the mountain, now coming down through Michoacán. The town they’ve stopped at is on those main roads heading towards Cuernavaca, the heart of Zapata’s stronghold — in fact, Imelda hauled them off of it earlier that day, pulling their horses aside to let a group of bedraggled men race by, so dust-covered she couldn’t even tell what army they belonged to.

“You’re crazy, it’s still not safe!” she’d whispered fiercely to Ernesto, once they’d passed. “We’re going to get our throats slit and our purses stolen!”

“Ach, we’ll be fine,” Ernesto said, but he sucked his lip in doubtfully.

Now, he arches his eyebrow. “Music for philanthropy’s sake?” he asks.

“Is there any other reason for music?” Héctor fires back.

“Yeah.” Ernesto gestures around. “Revolution, of course.”

So they stable their horses, scope out the town square to see where would be best to set up to play, and start hanging up flyers. They’re still doing this when a man approaches them and asks if they’re looking for a stage. He’s got sparse, scrub-brush hair and a pinstripe button-up, the armpits sweated out. He books them for three nights.

Their show that night is in his cantina, where there’s a flinty, dry-lightning feeling to the crowd, a surge underneath every call and response, and all of it tells Imelda that Héctor was right: the people here needed something to distract them. She kicks up her heels and spins her skirts out, and nails every high note.

Afterwards, everyone wants to buy her a drink.

It’s mostly men by this point, as more and more of the women retreated the later it got (there’s a cockfight happening across town, which is much more interesting to them than the cockfight happening over Imelda at the bar,) and she’s gotten a lot better at euphemisms since they started hanging out in cantinas regularly, and gives back to them as good as she’s got.

Héctor stays with her, and Ernesto tries, but it quickly becomes clear that Imelda’s the star of the night.

He disappears and they keep drinking, playing up the little riffs the cantina men give them.

“To Michoacán!” the men chorus at one point, lofting their bottles up high. “The only state in Mexico that matters!”

Imelda looks at Héctor. He puts a hand to his Oaxacan heart with a wince.

She loses track of time, but it must be very late indeed by the time Ernesto comes back, materializing at the back of the crowd like a chaperone who’s let his charges slip. He spots them still at the bar and huffs. The men watch. Their teeth peek out meanly over the rims of their bottles.

Drunkenly, Imelda lifts her arms. “It’s Ernesto!”

She slaps Héctor’s back, gives him a shake, but he’s flat-faced on the table and doesn’t stir.

“Héctorrrrr,” she rolls her r out as far as it will go, distracted by the way it makes the roof of her mouth tingle. Héctor mumbles inaudibly and kicks at her ankle, which seems inordinately funny.

“Get up,” she whispers to him loudly. “Your husband’s come to fetch you!”

It works: the men around her all cackle.

But Imelda’s not looking at them. She’s watching Ernesto, and so she sees it — that flash of complete, unmistakable terror. He wrestles it under control, fast as slamming a basket over a snake, but it’s blanched all the color from his face.

Imelda swallows, abruptly cold.

“I’m sorry,” she says numbly, as soon as he pushes through the crowd to get to them, looming over her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think —“

But she’s no good at this. Soothing him has always been Héctor’s job. She doesn’t know where to start.

He snaps his teeth at her and roughly hauls Héctor to his feet, ignoring his dazed, protesting moan. Imelda stumbles up too, getting in under his other side, although it isn’t necessary: Ernesto is more than capable of carrying Héctor on his own.

“I’m —“ she tries again.

“Just — be quiet,” he gets out, seething.

“Ernesto …”

He rounds on her. “For once, will you just — you do not need to be the cleverest person in the room.”

“I’m sorry,” Imelda says helplessly.

She sees him looking around, gauging the mood, and knows what he’s doing. What they’ve had to do, all this time.

Everyone’s lazy, laughing, sure — no harm done, right? But Imelda’s made a joke of it now, and the joke will be repeated, because it’s harmless, until it lands in the ear of someone who isn’t harmless at all. Haha, that musician and his little wife. No, not her, him. And then Ernesto’s going to have to fight — or rather, since Ernesto’s shoulders make hecklers want to deflect onto easier targets, Héctor will.

(I’m not afraid, she’d told Chicharrón, as if strangers with violent intentions only came in one type. She might not have been afraid, but Ernesto and Héctor were. Of course they were.)

And he knows it, too, because once they get Héctor sprawled out on the bed and tug his boots off, Ernesto looks down at him and says, deadly quiet, “If he gets his teeth knocked out because of you, I’ll take yours, too.”

Imelda sways on her feet.

If she were more in her right mind, she’d never say it. But she isn’t, and she does.

She opens her mouth. With a distant disbelief, she hears herself say, “I’m not the one who made him a sodomite.”

— and can tell, immediately, that she’s struck bone.

It’s an ugly word, a cruel drunk man’s word, the kind of word Tío Consequela would throw around just to be crude, and it’s fitting that it’s the only word for it Imelda knows, because she regrets it the second she says it.

“You really think that,” he says flatly. “That I made him that way.”

She turns away.

Uncoordinated and aggressive about it, she tries to tug the pins out of her hair. She feels, rather than sees, him jabbing his finger at her back. “You! You’re — you’re just like everyone else. I should have known!”

I don’t want to be! she thinks furiously.

“I think,” her mouth says, still without permission from her brain, “that if you go for my teeth, I might get yours first.”

 

*

 

Her sore head comes for her with a vengeance the next morning, and gets worse the moment Héctor — also pale, pinched — comes in saying he doesn’t like the look of what’s coming out of the faucet and he’s going to find someplace he can boil water. Imelda almost curses at him, but he’s gone before she can successfully peel her tongue from the roof of her mouth. Damn him and his peculiar obsession, anyway, Imelda’s willing to drink horse piss right now if it’ll do anything to ease her head.

She pulls her hair up, gets dressed. Feeling all over in moss, the way the stonework in her hometown would get from the damp, she oozes her way out into the daylight.

There’s a man sitting on an overturned crate by the back door, cradling a hot cocoa drink between his hands, his rifle slung slantwise across his back the way her men do their guitars. Imelda nods to him as she goes by, and he shunts his bristly jaw back at her.

“Bit of a chill this morning, eh?” he remarks.

I’m from the mountains, she almost says. You don’t even know what cold is until you’ve felt it windy, foggy, and wet.

But superiority over the weather is the worst kind of superiority there is, so Imelda just says, “sure is,” and continues on.

Ernesto looks up as she comes out into the yard.

Their eyes crack together, and then they both look away.

In the daylight, the cantina looks shabbier than it had last night while they were playing, the wear and tear showing around its gap-toothed grin. But there must be some draw about it even early in the morning, because she can hear raised voices inside, as persistent and loud as her headache. No peace for her today, it seems.

She breaks the silence first.

“What’s the plan when we’re done here?” she asks, even though she knows full well what it is.

A beat, and then Ernesto answers, in a voice both steady and polite — and noticeably not hungover. She hates him.

“Cuautla. We can’t get there in a day, but it’s the next point in our spiral.”

Imelda makes a noise. Great.

Morelos. Cuautla. Means sugar cane. Sugar cane makes such an awful smell when it’s burning, and it’s that time of year.

“We don’t have a booking with any place yet,” he continues, shifting position as his mare snorts playfully at his hat and sidesteps just far enough out of reach to make throwing a blanket on her difficult, “but we’ve got enough flyers left that we can still wrangle a show, I think.”

“All right,” says Imelda.

Zapata and his rebels control the road from here, much to the continuing consternation of President Carranza. Famously, Zapata refused to even acknowledge the new constitution, fair election be damned, and as most of the south still looks to him for leadership, they’ve rung around Mexico City like a choke collar. Morelos is Zapata’s home territory. Prying him and the zapatistas out of the mountains will take more than what Carranza’s got in him.

With a sigh, she licks the dry ridges of her mouth and turns towards the horses. Just because she’s hungover doesn’t give her the excuse to neglect them.

Ernesto works alongside her in silence for several minutes, and when it’s obvious they aren’t going to rehash their argument from last night, starts in with one of his favorite subjects instead: what does she know about Cuautla’s richest houses, its palatial municipal buildings? That, of course, is just a preamble to the kind of house Ernesto himself is going to build one day, when he’s so stinking rich he’ll be able to stuff his bedcovers with banknotes. Everything he’s ever seen in broadsheets and newspapers, the stories he’s heard from the mariachi who used to be household musicians before the war forced the rich families to let their live-in bands go — they all make for an exhaustive list.

“Do you have any concept of ‘too grandiose’?” Imelda asks, after about ten minutes of this.

Ernesto’s mouth twitches.

“But think,” he says to her solemnly. “We’ll have a house so big you’d only have to see me twice a year.”

She snorts, and winces when it makes her skull throb in protest. “How much gold can one house possibly require?”

“Well — ” Ernesto starts, and then the windows of the cantina blow outward.

Glass strikes Imelda in the face, and she flings up an arm to protect herself, too late. Her mare rears with a shriek, yanking her reins right out of her startled hands. Imelda’s looking in the wrong direction, and gets bumped by her horse’s rump, hard enough that it almost knocks her face-first into the cobbles.

Her ears ring.

Staggering, dazed, she reaches up, brushing at the pinpricks of glass standing out on her clothes, and more shivers out of her hair when she gives her head a shake.

How — ?

Around her, distantly, like listening to something while submerged, she can hear shouting, and strange pop-cracks that sound almost like —

— like cowboys shooting at snakes, but —

What’s going on? Who —

Her horse crow-hops away, flattening her ears, and it gives her an unimpeded view of the yard.

Even as she watches, bullets gouge holes out of the wooden posts, dent into the watering pail, one right after the other. Dust and splinters, everywhere. And there’s Ernesto, holding onto his horse, looking baffled and slightly annoyed.

She opens her mouth to shout at him to get down, but then —

A sharp plume of impact; Ernesto’s hat blown clean off his head.

He hits the ground.

What seems like an entire eternity later, Imelda hears the gunshot.

She screams, and dives towards him, letting the pinto break free and bolt. She grabs his brown mare before she tramples him in her panic. Imelda urges her backwards, away from the cantina and the gunshots — she’s much too big a target.

Keeping her hands over the mare’s eyes, shushing her, she tries to check on Ernesto.

Is he moving? There should be blood, right, if he’d been shot?

She should be seeing blood by now, and —

And she’s so busy that she doesn’t notice the door to the cantina banging open, its occupants dashing in every direction like rats, until there’s suddenly a man right next to her.

“I need that horse,” he demands, wild-eyed, and Imelda jerks away and stares at him in disbelief.

(He has the kind of facial hair that both Héctor and Ernesto would probably kill for, her brain tells her, completely casual about it. It reminds her of the engineer from Zacatlán, and how’s his trainyard coming, anyway — wait.)

“Over my dead body,” she says.

He brings his pistol up and points it at her forehead.

It’s funny, she’d seen it there in his hand, registered it for what it was, and still somehow it didn’t feel at all real until she finds herself looking down its barrel. That’s a pistol, she thinks.

He cocks the hammer into place.

That’s a pistol! she thinks, with more urgency.

But she’s got the mare, and she doesn’t know which direction they need to go — away from here, and whatever deal just went horribly wrong in the cantina, but also away from this man. He’s going to steal her horse, and Imelda cannot present him with a side to mount on.

No knife, this time. So now what?

As she’s pushing, trying to make up her mind, her hand touches something heavy and cold. She blinks, cuts her eyes away for a fraction of a second.

Inside the cantina, a shout rings out.

“Dead!”

“Find him!”

— and the man glances back distractedly, then advances on her, shaking the gun and all but spitting, “Now, you stupid little —”

And Imelda lets their cast-iron pan fall into her palm, switches her grip, and bashes him in the face.

The sound it makes is terrific, reverberating like a bell in church.

He smashes into the ground, and — a flash of slithering movement in her peripheral — and — Ernesto is suddenly on top of him, hands over his mouth and neck, pinning him flat to the dirt.

“Ernesto — !” Imelda cries. “Are you —”

His hair’s disheveled, forelock flopping into his face, and blood trickles down his hairline into his eyes, but it’s just a graze. The bullet ate nothing but hat.

“I’m fine,” he grunts. “You?”

“Fine,” Imelda answers, still gripping the pan.

They both wait, but the man isn’t moving anymore, and after a moment, she takes a tentative step forward.

“Ernesto,” she says, and when he doesn’t budge, keeping his weight pressed down on top of the man’s head, she says it again, louder.

“Ernesto!”

Another step, and then he does lift his eyes. Imelda recognizes the look in them, has seen it in horses in that split second after they’ve thrown you off their back, as they contemplate their hooves, your skull, the application thereof.

Then it’s gone, and he lurches to his feet, backing up fast enough to bump into the post. Imelda goes to his side, and together, they observe the pulp on the ground. Ernesto holds his hands out in front of him, like they’ve got nothing to do with him, like he just found them like that — smeared oily, dark, red.

Imelda remembers doing the exact same thing. Men bleed so much more than you think they will.

“Was that —“ she starts, but he shakes his head.

“I don’t think I did anything. I think he was like that when he — went down.” He blinks, tears his eyes away to look at her. “You did that.”

I did that?

She looks again, properly, makes herself look. Mash and bones, brains.

I don’t even know his name, Imelda thinks, stupidly.

That feels like something she should know.

If she’s going to kill a man, she should know his name.

The mare comes around behind them, dancing nervously on her toes. As she nudges Imelda’s shoulder, Ernesto crouches and — calmer now, almost matter-of-fact — divests the man of his wallet and his handkerchief, the latter of which he uses to wipe his hands. Imelda looks around at the neighboring buildings. Isn’t anyone going to come investigate?

After a long moment, she steps over the glass and goes to track down her own horse.

Who hadn’t gone far, it turns out. She finds her a few streets over, legs planted, blanket and saddle askew on her back. She succeeds in calming her down, and then completely fails in doing the same with herself, all of her insides twisted and knotted up and wadded low in her gut. She wants, desperately, to make the last ten minutes of her life … not happen. Unhappen.

She wants to be waking up again, hungover — god, she’d take that in a heartbeat.

But it is done, and it cannot be undone.

When she returns, the … the corpse has been rolled into the gutter with the glass from the blown-out windows.

“There’s more inside,” Ernesto tells her, who has his mare with him. “He won’t look out of place.”

We have to go, Imelda realizes.

She looks at him and he looks back at her.

The next moment, without being entirely sure how she got there, he’s crushing her against him and she’s clutching him back just as tight. He strokes her hair back. Her headache pounds futilely under his hand.

They stand like that for what feels like a biblical age but is probably only a minute or so, her head on his chest, him trying to make his arms someplace she can hide. It hadn’t been like this with deserters fleeing from the villistas. Imelda had not made a corpse.

“We’re not telling Héctor,” he blurts.

She hears double; one ear pressed to his heart, the other turned towards his voice.

She blinks. “That there was a shoot-out? We’re going to have to tell him why we’re cutting out on two more nights’ pay. If nothing else, he’s going to want to know what happened to your hat.”

“No. That we killed a man. We killed him instead of letting him have the horse. He won’t like that.”

“I …”

Imelda doesn’t know if she can keep that kind of secret, not even to spare Héctor’s feelings. She’s not in the habit of either one of those things.

His grip on her changes abruptly. He shakes her hard enough to knock her teeth.

“We promised,” he grits out, right in her face, “we vowed — I was there — his happiness, his health, his keeping, you said —“

She struggles. “I’m aware of what I said,” she snaps her teeth back at him. “I didn’t realize it was so broad a definition it includes murder!”

And Ernesto says, “Of course it does.”

And, “what did you think we were talking about?”

And then he releases her, which is a mistake because the ground under Imelda’s feet isn’t where she left it. She can’t remember feeling this critically off-balance, not by anything.

She sways on her feet, and looks upward, and then has the audacity to stand there with a dead man not a horse’s handspan away and ask God to forgive her, because Ernesto is right. He’s right.

If a rebel pointed his gun at Héctor Rivera, she would have swung for his head without hesitation.

It’s an awful thing to realize about yourself, and so she stares at the patch of Michoacán sky she can see — it’s a gorgeous color, actually, the exact thing she can picture God admiring and then laying across Mexico like a gift.

She stands there for one moment more, then another, but God does not answer her.

That’s fine. Imelda already knows.

She drops her eyes to Ernesto and says shortly, “Fix your hair, you look like you’ve been in a fight.”

And when Héctor meets up with them with his skeins of clean, boiled water and a bored horse, he exclaims over their story, and if for a few nights afterward, through Cuautla and beyond, Imelda catches Ernesto using their precious water to scrub his hands longer than necessary, if she catches herself flinching whenever they set the pan down hard enough to make it clang —

— that’s between her and God and the man waiting for her at the end of the marigold path.

 

*

 

After she arrives in the Land of the Dead, she lives by herself in a small room over the construction that will, someday, be a shoemaking shop. Her contractor looked at her funny when she insisted that the shop took priority, living space later — you can’t discourage your living family from dying by refusing to build them a space to live, señora, Imelda can practically hear her thinking.

It takes too much getting used to, the city and all its infernal noise, and Imelda jolts awake in her cot one morning long before she needs to be. Outside, the city clamors with itself for attention, and she snarls one tiny, wordless sound back at it and rolls over.

As she lays there, combating a crushing sense of loneliness, the memory of Michoacán comes at her without warning: her pounding head; the stains on the man’s teeth and his spittle as he shouts at her to give him her horse; the tiny round opening at the end of the pistol pointed right between her eyes, for all appearances already a bullet hole.

She sits up. One glance out the window reminds her of how colossally small she is in comparison.

Has she met anyone who’s been murdered? She probably has and it never came up. That just seems like a very rude thing to ask someone. Oh, you were violently slaughtered? What was that like!

So she isn’t sure what the process is.

Supposedly, there’s a dozen ways they handle murderers and the murdered here, because that’s been the way of things since Cain and Abel, and if you’d told Imelda while she was still alive that seven times out of ten, it was honor that led to people turning themselves in, she would have thought you blowing smoke up a cow’s rear end.

But everyone here is el santo to something, and you cannot be el santo with a sin like that on your soul.

What’s going to happen to you, Imelda?

What are you going to do?

She gets up.

She shoves her feet into her house sandals and fixes her hairpiece atop her skull, then goes downstairs, stepping over stacks of wooden boards and zip-tied bundles of piping.

A stack of mail sits on the counter; most of it forms forwarded to her from her case agent. There are a few catalogs, a coupon, and a periodical.

It’s this last she reaches for. It circulates four times a year, full of deaths that went unsolved. Murders, mostly. In it, you’ll find missives from people who remember being attacked, assaulted, shoved, stabbed, drowned, anything, but don’t know who did it —

— which is altogether different from the people who arrive in the Land of the Dead knowing exactly who killed them.

Grabbing the most recent copy, she drags a chair over to the window so she can read by the light of the city, since the shop hasn’t been wired yet. Her contractor and committee tried to convince her to put in fluorescent lighting, those long white bulbs like the kind they have in the supermarket, and she’d stared at them until they all decided to be somewhere else.

She scans the index and flips to 1917, which is, of course, awash with notices from soldiers.

May 2, a field, you shot me. Couldn’t reload your gun in time. I knocked you to the ground and you picked up a rock and bashed my head in. It took three blows before I stopped fighting. You kept shouting, María, María, oh María. A girlfriend? The Mother Mary?

You raided our camp, November 15. How did you know who we were? We couldn’t see who you were; you’d ripped all the stripes off your uniforms. You held my face down in half an inch of sewage. My wallet had three rubies, a pocketwatch from Zacatlán, and a picture of my mother. I hope they made you happy.

I had my hands up in surrender, you bastard. You shit-filled pus-licking bastard.

Imelda reads them all.

Every last one, from every corner of Mexico, looking for one that said: Michoacán, a hungover woman with a frying pan.

But he’s not there.

He’s not here, and so Imelda’s robbed even of this.

 

*

 

They make it back to Oaxaca without meeting the bad end of a gun, make the usual stops in the central valleys, then go south.

As they’re going through the mountains, they meet the rains coming from the other direction. Whereas the forests around Imelda’s hometown had mostly been of the pine variety, down here it’s all humid, tropical jungle. The air itself is so saturated it’s like trying to breathe through laundry before it’s gone through the crank — wet and smothering, inescapable.

When it breaks, it’s as if the skies gave one great gasp, then let it out all at once.

Rain falls, torrential and unceasing, for one day, then two, then four, then eight.

“We should watch out,” the widow warns them, brim tipped back so she can study the narrow strip of diluted, washy sky that’s visible. “Weather like this means even the rocks are soft. Means mudslides.”

They’ve collected a small band around them by then, since the Sierra Sur are like the Sierra Norte in that you should really only cross them in groups. It’s the three musicians and their horses, a librarian named Yajaira who travels with his mule to the remotest locations in Mexico to deliver news from the capital. With them on foot is the widow all in black, and a young man trying valiantly to grow a mustache.

(“Why are you giving him so much grief?” Ernesto says to Héctor, who can’t stop teasing. As they frequently are when it comes to Héctor, he and Imelda are on the same page on this, and not inclined to be generous. “You can’t either!”)

He’s got political aspirations, and he wants to fight Yajaira on everything.

His name, first of all, but if there’s anything her friendship with Gabriel has taught her, it’s that there’s no point in trying to determine why a man has a woman’s name, or visa versa: you’re just going to look like an ass.

Secondly, he wants to fight him about Carranza.

The first time they met Yajaira, he was surrounded by children eagerly making flower chains for his mule. As they laid them over its ears, he spoke with their parents — he had several pamphlets and a curious dictionary, cobbled together so that he could translate government language into something that actually made sense to the people who were going to have to live it. Imelda stood nearby, listening to him explain the situation that led to Venustiano Carranza securing the presidency and ending the war — if not the hostilities — and what his reforms meant for Mexico today.

Originally, she’d meant to speak with him about the mule’s sore tooth, which she could see bothering it, but both Yajaira and his mule had a manner so agreeable, so approachable, that Imelda wanted nothing more than to be wherever they were traveling next.

Except the político won’t let him rest.

Mercilessly, he points out that it is still Mexico’s poorest who will suffer the most under Carranza. He’s a hacienda man, a northerner, he’s always rubbed collars with the rich and wealthy, he has no idea what it’s like to scrape a living off a rattlesnake’s belly. There’s no incentive for him to change anything, not unless his rich friends pay him to.

Yajaira scratches at his chin. He’s got a round face made even rounder by his thick black sideburns, which reminds Imelda of the jolly old abuelo who always played Balthazar in her hometown nativity plays.

“Would you rather we go back to how things right after Madero’s assassination?” he asks. “Lawlessness?”

“Pfft! I thought you said you wanted to see all of Mexico from the back of that donkey of yours —“

“Mule,” he corrects mildly.

“— surely you know that the war isn’t over for anyone, except maybe rich men who want the soldiers swept off their acreages! We as a country are still starving, still —”

Imelda glances sidelong and finds Ernesto and Héctor already looking back at her. In unison, they urge their horses forward on the trail until the rain drowns them out, leaving Yajaira to the político’s mercies.

Honestly, the whole thing is academic to them.

“Don’t look at me,” Ernesto says on another occassion. “I can’t vote. I don’t have a name.”

“That I’ve got, but I don’t own land, so I can’t either,” Héctor adds.

(Imelda isn’t even discussed. Of course she can’t vote.)

But this just starts him off again.

“There are political parties fighting to change that,” he tells them, zealously. “A vote even for women, yes, thanks to the soldaderas. They don’t want to be put back into their box and neither should you!”

Which sounds nice, but Imelda lifts her eyebrows, dubious. “Are these the same soldaderas that the villistas treat worse than their horses?”

“Pancho Villa is a pig about it, yes,” the político admits, grudgingly. “But rebel camps could not run without their women and everyone knows it.”

The last member of their party contributes little to this debate.

Newly widowed, the woman all in black is trying to return home to her mother’s house, and Imelda hops down so that she can ride the pinto mare instead. She walks alongside with the reins in hand, and pities her in a vague way for being forced into such an unenviable corner.

The widow, of course, isn’t fooled.

“I did not think it could happen to me, either, when I was your age,” she tells her quietly.

She flicks her eyes towards Ernesto and Héctor, then back to Imelda, but not in the way a lot of people do, like they’re trying to decide which of them is responsible for her. This woman just looks sad.

“But how quickly it all falls apart,” she says, “if you’ve got no plan.”

“I’m sorry, doña,” Imelda replies.

Soon, though, they’re all too miserable even to argue politics.

The rain hasn’t stopped. They don’t own a dry piece of clothing between them. Water gets trapped in their boots where it stays for days, until their toes start resembling mushrooms, pruny and bleached. The jungle provides no protection; the rain collects along leaf cover high above them, only to dump on their heads all at once. Mosquitos breed everywhere.

As is probably to be expected, they all get sick, one right after the other.

The moment they find shelter — a ramshackle lean-to with a musty smell to it that suggests it’d been recently used as a whelping den for something — they stop moving to nurse themselves. They keep their most valuable possessions in the driest corner; the guitar cases, Yajaira’s books in their lockbox. The animals huddle together just outside the door, wretchedly lifting their hooves out of the sink.

Héctor boils water constantly, struggling to keep their campfire from guttering out.

“You’re the most charming bunch of people I’ve ever met,” he promises them all, as they wheeze through plugged noses and try not to drip over the steam.

Imelda stretches her foot out, gives Ernesto’s ribs a kick.

“Mexico’s greatest musicians,” she tells him. “Look at them now.”

He rolls his eyes. Then sucks back snot, which just proves her point.

The bright side is that it’s very difficult to see another person reduced to such lows and still remain hostile, so when they do pack up to continue on, the político and Yajaira do so on amiable terms. Héctor, when he wasn’t playing nursemaid — being sick more often conversely meant that he wasn’t as laid low by it as they were — had been paying attention to the monkeys, and managed to lash together fans out of brush, litter, and leaves that could act as rain hats. It helps.

The conditions outside haven’t dried at all.

Then, on the tenth day of their crossing, the road gives out.

At this altitude, it’s not so much a road as it is a narrow donkey path, hugging the ascent like a child had penciled it in last-minute.

They go single-file: Ernesto in front with the map, Yajaira bringing up the rear. The widow’s taken Imelda’s hand off the reins and is now holding it, running Ines’s wedding band around and around between her thumb and forefinger. Imelda appreciates it; the widow’s hands are warm, and Imelda’s feel like they’ve fossilized in that position.

Ernesto half-turns in his saddle.

“— like Easter,” he’s saying. “It changes dates every year. It’s the last two Mondays of every July.”

“Not the eighteenth, surely,” Héctor replies. “They wouldn’t have a celebration on the same day Benito Juárez died, any more than you would on Good Friday.”

“No, you’re right,” he frowns thoughtfully. “I wonder what they do, then. Is it postponed? Do —“

And then the ground beneath his mare simply stops existing.

It’s almost comical, the look on their faces: the mare stepping out over nothing, Ernesto mid-sentence, the both of them glancing up with an identical flash of exasperation, and —

— and then the horse screams, and Ernesto screams, and —

— they’re gone, just like that.

Héctor shouts, lurches —

— Imelda’s not close enough to grab him as he gets caught in his stirrup trying to plunge after them, all but twisting himself in half.

“Oh, Santa Maria,” gasps the widow.

From the rear, Yajaira shouts, “What is it? What happened!”

“Ernesto! Ernesto!”

“There!” Imelda points.

They reappear, still sliding, a tumble of hooves and blanket and pack and musician. Héctor leaps, skidding through the crushed path left in their wake. Behind him on the trail, his mare dances anxiously in place, craning her head out after him.

Imelda lets go of the widow’s hand.

Her wet boot heels slip right out from underneath her the second she lands, and she grabs handfuls of vegetation to kill her pitching downward momentum, which strips her palms bloody.

Below, man and horse fetch up against the rotted-out remains of a tree stump and stop sliding.

It’s not good. Imelda can tell that at a glance.

Ernesto’s pinned underneath the mare, and when she kicks her legs and tries to roll upright, he screams.

Ernesto!”

Then Héctor’s there, numbly pulling at the straps until the saddle gives, freeing them from each other.

“Ernesto? Ernesto!”

And next, Imelda, acting on instinct born from years of being the horsemaster’s youngest niece, who’s seen the tricky winding roads of Sierra Juárez kill more seasoned travelers than them. She catches the mare, who is white-eyed with terror, and speaks to her until she stops her panicked kicking.

In short order, Imelda’s got her on her feet.

“Is she okay?” Héctor glances up to check.

“I think so!”

Miraculously, she’s broken no legs, but the same cannot be said for Ernesto.

“Ernesto, hey, hey.” Héctor’s doing his best to keep Ernesto’s head out of the mud. “Are you all right, did you hit your head, can you say anything?”

“Now,” Ernesto gets out through gritted teeth. “Now can we take the train?”

Imelda stands and shades her eyes from the rain.

“Get help!” she calls back up the slope.

At the top, Yajaira gestures helplessly at her. They’re lucky if they encounter one other traveler a day, conditions like this. Where are they supposed to find help?

But the político stands.

Without a word, he adjusts his rain hat and starts off at a jog back the way they came.

As they wait, Imelda considers all the things she should have reminded him they were going to need — whatever help he encounters, there’s no way to know if they have any experience with mountain rescues. The religious order in San Juan Albán had made it their lives’ work, but not everyone can be them.

Twilight slinks in gloomy and slouching and early, and by then Ernesto’s in bad shape, grey-lipped and mumbling, no longer even responding to Héctor’s cajoling pleas or Imelda’s insults. They’ve made a tourniquet for his leg. It was the best they knew to do.

Yajaira and the widow remain above, keeping a cobbled sort of camp with the mule and the remaining two mares.

Ernesto’s pack is more intact than he is — they haven’t attempted to move him, not with the smashed, dented way his leg looks — but when Imelda picks up his case, the noise of the instrument inside makes her flinch. She brings it back to them, but doesn’t open it: that’s a grief for later.

Then, from below —

A shout.

Imelda snaps her head around, and goes limp with relief.

Those are lanterns bobbing towards them, and attached to them —

“He’s brought us at least twenty people,” she relays to Héctor. “And they’ve got pulleys, and a stretcher.”

They spot them, and the shouting ratchets up a notch. They form a line and start cutting their way uphill to them, efficiently crushing the undergrowth by bending it instead of slashing it, forming the kind of human chain Imelda recognizes down to the bone.

Their shouts back get no response, and it doesn’t take long to realize it’s because their rescuers don’t speak Spanish.

“Neither did I, when I first landed in this country,” her mother had told her, once, after an encounter in the market woke a tiny Imelda to the fact that not everybody spoke the same language. “You forget, for centuries, Spanish in Mexico was the provision of the rich alone, something they enjoyed keeping separate from their subjects. It wasn’t until after independence that the government declared everyone should have access to it, to help disseminate its power. You’re lucky, your tío had you and the others learn it first. But I bet you his mother didn’t know it.”

So Imelda has no lengua abuela — no grandmother tongue. Héctor and Ernesto were raised with church Latin, and are equally useless.

She shouts up the slope for Yajaira, since finding remote settlements is his job, and he comes slip-sliding down to join them.

“Where would we be?” he mutters to himself, squinting through the drizzle. He raises his voice. “Oto? Oto? Amuzgo?”

No response.

Héctor shakes his head and leans in. “We’re in the mountains. Try Zapotec.”

“That’s nice,” Yajaira whispers back. “Which one?”

But then he thinks about it.

He cups his hands around his mouth. “Ben Zur? Ben Zaa?”

They’re close enough now that Imelda can see the answering smile on the lead rescuer’s face, the amused wink of his teeth underneath his rain visor: Yajaira had probably butchered the pronunciation. The communication that happens after that goes very quickly.

The librarian turns back, drooping with relief. “There’s a village. It’s not far.”

 

*

 

They load the insensate Ernesto on the stretcher. Hand-over-hand, Imelda and Héctor and Yajaira and the Zapotecs carry him down the mountain.

Imelda is going to tease him mercilessly when he wakes up.

She is. He will.

When they reach the settlement, they see the defender’s wall looming up first; the kind of structure that’s stood against invasion for centuries, and remained standing even when Tenochtitlán fell. Where Imelda’s from, in the northern mountains, anything similar had been reduced to rubble, but this one looks untouched, from its base to the snarling stone faces that line the top.

Ernesto’s hauled to the infirmary, where the político’s roused a doctor, but everyone else gets taken to the gatehouse, where enough of the women speak Spanish that the language stops being such a barrier.

Imelda stops by the church first — there’s only one, tucked off to the side in between residential houses, and she might have missed it entirely if not for the shrine to the Virgin of Guadelupe outside; a single hollow in the wall housing an old statue and small vases of flowers. She lights blessings and says a prayer, first for Ernesto and the steady hands of the doctor setting his leg, and then for everyone caught out in that weather, who might not have an intrepid young man used to stirring people up to action to help them should disaster befall them.

Just in time, too: the next mudslide takes out the road entirely, and fetches up nothing against the wall except smothered remains.

If Ernesto’s horse hadn’t fallen, that could have easily been them.

“We’re going to be here awhile,” she says to Héctor, sitting on the bed of the little cupboard room they put them in, separate from their party. They’ve got their cases with them, and the remains of Ernesto’s guitar removed from its tomb; the wood’s split end to end. It’s unsalvageable.

He makes a subdued noise.

“We’re safe,” he reminds her, and tips his head against her shoulder. “And dry.”

“And dry,” she agrees.

 

*

 

The people here are Zapotec first, Mexican second, their main economy is glassworks, and the first time the cooks in the gatehouse hear Imelda’s mountain accent, they brighten with recognition.

San Juan Albán had been settled by Zapotecs, Imelda knows, and named it for Monte Albán, once the seat of their civilization.

“Bene xon, bene xon,” they say to her, the same word that Yajaira had butchered, and eventually someone thinks to tell her it’s the Zapotec name for themselves: cloud people.

Ah, Imelda thinks. Of course.

The women all cover their heads outside the home, piplin cloth wound back out of the way and held in place with bands. From a distance, they look as if they’ve got fantastical colored hair, like an alebrije’s, and one of their first orders of business once it’s established that Ernesto isn’t going to die from infection today, please feel free to stop making your dramatic proclamations, señor, is to separate Imelda from her party for sequestering, since it’s her time of the month.

Imelda had been handling those, typically, by using more hot stones, eating less than usual, and otherwise just pinning rags in place and getting on with things, but apparently that’s not how it’s done here.

“We’re Catholic,” she points out. It feels relevant, suddenly. “We don’t do it like this, I’m Catholic.”

“Ay, well, beat your breast and cry mea culpa, la católicita, if it will make you feel better,” and this casual blasphemy bemuses Imelda so much they’ve got her behind closed doors before she can properly dig her heels in.

It turns out to not be so bad, not seeing a man for seven days.

Especially not once Imelda realizes that her assumption of “you’re dirty and must be kept away from good, clean people until the impurity has passed” is a polite fiction they tell the men so the men feel reassured it’s the natural order of things, and the reality is more “we know you’re in pain, here is some time to focus on other things.”

The lodge where they stay while their monthlies run their course has a courtyard at its center, with bright, hand-painted tiles set in the paths and mats set out where Imelda sometimes sees the others praying. It thrives with greenery: huge, leafy behemoths and orchids of every type.

She thought it must also double as a farm of some kind, but it doesn’t. This is just for the women.

Imelda decides she could probably get used to it.

 

*

 

It takes seven weeks for Ernesto’s knee to set and heal, and even then it’s never the same.

He walks with a limp for the rest of his life — it becomes a quirk of his characters, that stiff knee, an Ernesto de la Cruz trademark. Comedians doing parodies can transform themselves instantly; cocky grin, butt chin, limp, and you know they’re about five seconds away from either hitting a warbling high note or dropping some overwrought prose.

 

*

 

They’re not the only ones stranded. The roads remain impassable for everyone except small groups, so carts and caravans mill around with nowhere to go. The gatehouse, which had probably once been barracks before being adapted for posada decades ago, becomes encrusted with travelers like monarch butterflies on migration, all overlapping one another. She supposes if it was truly necessary, they could turn around and try to find another way through the mountains, but that’s not the Mexican way. If a town’s been buried to its bell by mudslides, you don’t leave them stuck there with their misfortune, you stop and you help.

So from sun-up to sundown, Imelda’s day is full of work: first is clearing the streets, cleaning the mud from the wall and filling sandbags to reinforce its defenses, so if the rain turns to flood it won’t wash away something that’s stood since before the Spaniards.

Once they regain access to the road, the reconstruction effort begins in earnest.

Imelda, the farrier, takes her pack horses to work alongside the others.

She sees Héctor maybe twice a day. She sees him when they collapse into bed together and Héctor loops an arm around her neck to pull her in and she mumbles something deep and abidingly affectionate, like, “you stink like shit,” and he mumbles back at her, equally affectionate, “fun fact,” which makes no sense, and they’re both asleep in minutes.

Next is at noon break, sharing food at Ernesto’s bedside while rain drips through the roof into pans set around the infirmary.

“I’m more familiar with the spots on the ceiling than any man has a right to be,” he complains to them.

“Not much longer, amigo,” Héctor promises.

He’d stopped bringing his guitar to these get-togethers, once it became obvious Ernesto wanted nothing to do with it — not after they broke the news to him about his own. He didn’t even want to hear the labor songs they’re singing at the work sites, the ones that get invented whenever you throw a bunch of different groups together for a common task. Héctor’s been talking Imelda’s ear off instead.

Ernesto idly contemplates the ceiling.

“See that one there? Doesn’t it look like a lopsided — you know —“

Imelda looks.

Hey,” she protests, and Héctor sniggers.

Of their original party, the político left at the very first glimpse of clear skies, and Yajaira a week or two after him, since his circuit through southern Mexico has a timetable, and finally the widow finds Imelda one morning as she’s cleaning tack.

“Imeldita,” she says, and Imelda stands respectfully, wiping her sudsy hands on a cloth. “I wanted you to have these.”

They’re earrings, and Imelda knows as soon as she closes her fingers around them that they’re solid gold.

“I can’t,” she balks. “Doña, no.”

A woman with jewelry will always have something to barter or sell, and what will happen to this grieving woman if she reaches her family and finds the situation’s changed? She peeks — gold hoops, not anything mastercraft but probably equal in value to her ring, the one Ines gave her.

“I can’t,” she says again, looking up.

But the widow’s already gone.

Imelda asks around. None of the horses were taken, so she must have left on foot, but nobody remembers seeing her leave, or who she left with. They’re at a loss.

She turns the hoops over in her palm. Then she puts them into her ears.

And though she doesn’t know it yet, there they will stay, through all this life and into the next.

 

*

 

By then, Ernesto is up and walking for short stints.

His temper’s up with him, restless and snappish. He’s so bored he’s ready to see insult in even the smallest things.

“I bet you’ll feel better once we can put on a show,” Héctor wheedles, nudging him with his elbow and smiling invitingly. “They’re stuck with me singing by myself. That’s a tragedy.”

But Ernesto just scowls, drawing back. “Why would I want to do that when I’ve got no guitar?”

“You don’t need one, amigo!” Héctor tells him, with confidence. “Voice like yours! I’ll do the accompaniment, it’ll be great, you’ll see. It’s just been a really long time since we played for anyone, I bet that’s the problem.”

“No,” Ernesto corrects him shortly. “The problem is —“

And that’s when Imelda tunes out, too impatient to hear Ernesto’s negativity loop around its circular path. She’s stopped coming to eat lunch with them, because there wasn’t any point. She and Ernesto keep needling each other constantly, and it’s not helping anyone. So she leaves the mess in Héctor’s lap — he’s got a lot more practice with soothing Ernesto’s delicate ego than she does.

It’s what Ernesto wants too, she bets: Héctor to himself again.

“What is wrong with you two?” Héctor demands, once, after giving her an update and Imelda, tired and frustrated and sweaty, snapped back, bah! Héctor, he just wants attention, don’t feed into it. “You haven’t been able to say anything to each other without infuriating yourselves.”

“Don’t look at me!” Imelda says dismissively. “He started it!”

The problem, of course, is that they haven’t forgotten Michoacán — what she said, what he said back. It followed them here. It’s all they can see when they look at each other. And they’re stuck.

Imelda knows they’re stuck, and each time she vows to be the bigger person. It lasts up until the second Ernesto sneers at her with that awful, awful — smug — mustache.

Héctor pinches the bridge of his nose.

“You turn every conversation into a fight you need to win. You don’t have to win! Neither of you, it’s fine if you don’t win!”

“If you think that, you really don’t know us,” Imelda retorts, just to be contrary.

He frowns.

For a second, it’s like he believes her, and she opens her mouth in a panic, but then he says, “No, I do, which is why this is so frustrating, because it’s not like you at all.”

Not long after that, the doctor moves Ernesto out of the infirmary, finally. He’s still weeks away from riding, or doing the strenuous work, but he doesn’t need to be on a sickbed anymore, so they stick him with the other unmarried men in the crowded bottom floor of the gatehouse. Things improve after that: Ernesto distracted with winning over his new roommates, exercising his knee and poking his head into everything. It’s an effort, climbing the stairs to Héctor and Imelda’s room, but he does that, too.

So when it happens, it’s —

It was really only a matter of time.

 

*

 

The gatehouse in the middle of the day is hot, closed-in, like the pantry room where her brothers slept. The cooks, straining with the influx of stranded travelers-turned-volunteers, have taken to cooking things in vats that aren’t meant for it, simply to keep up. They leak heat everywhere, and now even the stone stairwells, usually the coolest places to be, start feeling a little baked.

Imelda’s early for lunch, still wearing her apron, doused in a fine layer of horse hair the way she always is, and eats quickly. It’s all mostly old people and children, and she passes two young girls on the stairs who spot her and promptly switch to a language she can’t understand, as if Imelda’s even interested in whatever drama they’re hashing out — then again, she’d probably have done something similar at their age, convinced her secrets were important enough to hide.

By now, she’s pieced together enough of the village language to understand simple instructions given to her, but constructing a response is another matter entirely. Verb, noun, adjective, ending — she had to tell the doctor more about the fall and found she had no idea how to put anything into the past tense and wound up saying, “two months,” pointing behind her, and then continuing with her choppy present tense. It got the point across, but it gave Imelda newfound appreciation for the sheer physical relief of it, to be able to shut a door behind you and hear nothing but the familiarity of your own tongue for awhile. Yajaira tells her that under the Zapotec language tree, he knows of at least forty regional varieties — and those are just the ones he personally has encountered. The Zapotec spoken here would not be the same Zapotec spoken in Imelda’s hometown, or by Benito Juárez, Mexico’s greatest president.

She’s still ruminating on it as she turns into their corridor, and so isn’t thinking when she finds the latch on their door already lifted — that’s curious — and turns sideways, slipping inside without hardly moving it —

And draws up short. Blinks fast.

Oh.

It takes a moment to process what she’s seeing, and another after that to wonder about the etiquette.

Oh, no.

Should she clear her throat? Say, excuse me, señores?

She’s almost on top of them — the room is not big — but they’re too engrossed to notice.

Héctor’s back is to her, one arm looped carelessly around Ernesto’s shoulders. Their pants are around their ankles, suspenders discarded on the floor like snakeskins, and Imelda’s distracted by the peculiar sight of their bare, hairy legs and her husband’s buttocks visible under his shirt. She glances at them, then away, wanting to laugh. He’s got his other hand between their bodies — she can’t see from this angle, but the movement of his arm, the way the muscles in his back bunch, is unmistakable.

Ernesto puts a hand behind him, bracing himself so he can lean against the foot of the bed. He’s busy with kissing the parts of Héctor that present to him first: his chest, his armpit, the bony ridge of his shoulder, unselfconscious and unaware. He rocks into Héctor’s grip, and the bad knee trembles.

Had they forgotten about the door, she wonders. What if it hadn’t been her?

This thought makes her scowl, and she takes her hand off the latch. Seriously, it’s not like them at all to take a risk like that —

Ernesto looks up.

Their eyes collide, so shockingly sudden it’s like getting hit. He freezes, and so does she. The moment stretches, held perilously thin between them, Ernesto half-naked and Imelda frowning.

“Hey —“ Héctor complains. “You with me, or … ?”

Something flickers in Ernesto’s eyes. His mouth curdles at the corner, a scrim of a sneer coming up; the exact same look he gets right before he makes a crack at Imelda’s musty horse smell or her slurping — or literally anything else she’s been doing in his vicinity lately. Dread slicks the inside of her mouth.

Slowly, without breaking eye contact, Ernesto reaches between them and stills Héctor’s hand, drawing it away from them.

“What?” Héctor’s breathless, shifting on his heels as Ernesto holds him still. “What is it?”

And — horribly — he starts to turn his head.

Imelda’s visceral insides do a very good job of trying to leap backward all at once without waiting for her body to catch up, and she is not going to get out through that door before she’s caught, but Ernesto gets there first:

Swift as a strike, he grabs a fistful of Héctor’s hair and yanks it back.

Héctor jerks, inhaling sharply. All at once, he lets himself go pliant and maneuverable, held flush to Ernesto’s front by his grip in his hair, his own arm held immobilized. Ernesto tugs until Héctor’s mouth is tilted in place, then kisses it. He’s not looking at Imelda anymore —

But he might as well have taken a pin and stuck her right where she is.

“Héctor.” His grip eases, fingers feathering through Héctor’s hair so he can rub the base of his skull. “Do you love me?”

Imelda’s breath catches.

“Is that what this is about?” Héctor sounds amused, though muffled. “Of course I do, now let me —“

But Ernesto doesn’t let him put a hand around both of them again.

Still moving with deliberate care, he lets go of Héctor’s head. That hand slides down, nudging their bodies apart just far enough. She sees Héctor’s toes flex, then curl up.

“You love me?” Ernesto says again, against the side of Héctor’s mouth.

“I love you,” Héctor agrees, and makes a hitched sound as the hand between them pulls.

And this is the moment Imelda needs to back out the door and walk away, because Ernesto isn’t going to stop and he’s not going to let Héctor discover her watching, and the longer she stands there with the door ajar, half-in half-out, the greater the chance someone else is going to come along and then they’re all in trouble.

But when she moves to retreat, Ernesto’s eyes dart back to her and nail her there.

She can’t take a step. The challenge in his gaze keeps her rooted to the spot, and she puts her back against the doorframe and stares him down.

I’m here to stay, she tries to tell him, with her eyes on his. I love him too, even like this.

Maybe especially like this: sweaty, eager to please, flexing forward until he starts making that bitten-off noise that’s as immediately familiar to Imelda as it is to Ernesto, because he eases off his stroking and kisses quiet Héctor’s protesting moan.

He holds them there, squeezing to keep Héctor on that brink without giving him enough friction to tip him over.

When he speaks, his voice is low enough to shiver in its own grave.

“Tell me,” he pushes their foreheads together. His forelock’s mussed beyond recognition. “Héctor —“

“Yes,” Héctor gasps. “Yes,” and, “for you, it’s for you, it sings me more than I could ever sing it, don’t you know that?”

And the way Ernesto looks at him reminds Imelda, all at once, of Héctor saying, don’t you ever get hungry for a person? Because it’s wide-eyed, wanting, and probably the most honest thing she’s seen on his face since they sat down on the edge of his sickbed and told him his guitar had gotten smashed in the fall.

“I know,” he murmurs, “but I want to hear you say it.”

“Greedy bastard. Come on, please.”

“How long will your music be mine?”

“— all my life, until the day I die,” and Ernesto moves his thumb just so, once, twice, three times, and Héctor goes up onto his tiptoes, chasing it, groaning, fingers splaying open. “Ay, ay, ayyy — !” And holds that position, his thighs shaking and his head thrown back. Imelda watches without blinking — she’s sure her expression and Ernesto’s are identical.

Ernesto catches him when he sags, chuckling, and kisses him on his panting mouth.

“You —“ Héctor says as he slowly comes back around, “you haven’t —“

“Oh, trust me,” and Ernesto kisses him again. Struggling to collect his wits, Héctor kisses him back sloppy, sentimental. “This was about you.”

And that, at last, snaps Imelda out of it.

Quickly, she checks the hallway — clear, thank God — and steps back out, careful not to make a sound. Then and only then does she release the full breath she’d been holding, dizzy and tilting with it, with a feeling like the ground is sliding out from under her.

What was that about?

You don’t have to win, Imelda — but what were they even playing?

 

*

 

Later, she’ll wish she did something different.

Not then, but earlier, when she had the chance — she wishes she could have seen them in some other context, not just when Ernesto was bored and in pain and combative and willing to spite anyone, even her, just because he could.

It’d been easier for her to just ignore them up until now, confident that that part of their relationship had nothing to do with her.

The next they get a chance to work together in relative privacy, she tells Héctor this, “— but I don’t think I would have known how to ask. How to be included. I didn’t want a show — that’s not what it’s about.”

A beat, and then Héctor tilts her a grinning look and says, “Yeah, but you know us, we like putting on a —“

Héctor.”

His grin fades.

“I’m sorry, Imelda,” he says.

“What?” She makes a rude noise. What is he sorry for? He’s got nothing to be sorry for!

They go back to work. A black-and-white monkey sits on top of the defender’s wall, idly eating at the rind of something with its white beard stained with juices, until a loud vocalization from deeper in the jungle startles it. It nearly loses its balance, does lose its lunch, and when it recovers it walks off pretending nothing happened.

Imelda glances at Héctor to share a smile about it with him, but he’s not paying attention.

She’s been too busy with everything, she realizes — and not without good reason! She had a lot to learn, and not a lot of time to learn it: how to be on her own, and surviving in the wilderness, and camping and wrangling shows and then performing in them, how the climate changed, how the sun worked without fog to obscure it. She hadn’t had a lot of thought left to give to her and Héctor, or him and Ernesto.

But Héctor clearly hasn’t stopped thinking about it.

She chews on this for awhile.

People come and go, tipping their hats in acknowledgement when they see them. The women stand nearby to stretch their backs. A group of young men pass, chanting a familiar corrido — it’s Héctor’s one about Juanita, but with other verses from different corridos cobbled in, so their Juanita bears almost no resemblance to the original beyond still being a heartbreaker.

Finally, she touches his elbow with hers and ventures, “You have to make it up as you go along, don’t you?”

Surprise flashes across his face.

He looks at her, and it softens.

“There’s … there’s no precedent,” he explains, keeping his voice low. “Not that we know of. Any story we could find about people like us, men who kiss other men, women who kiss other women — there’s never a happy ending. There are no stories where we get to succeed.” His hands open and close, helplessly. “The only people who get to — to keep this are the ones prepared to be nobody at all. The ones willing to put their heads down, live small lives, nod whenever anybody says, that doesn’t happen in Mexico. And never attract attention.”

She knows at once that they’ve considered this, too, but —

“That’s not us. We can’t … we can’t do that. And I wouldn’t trade you for …”

He trails off, and frustratedly rakes his hand through his hair.

And as Imelda watches him, it strikes her that where she’s got a chorus of shrieking Consequela cousins in her head, he’s got one too; that he has to shout above their doubt, their judgment, the threat of violence, just to get anything done. That he’s got to overcome that, before anything else.

She steps in close, puts her cheek to his shoulder.

Takes stock of the familiar things: the smell of him, the duckling line of freckles marching up his neck, the way he lets out all his breath at once, sagging into her so it’s more a matter of them holding each other up, the husband and the wife.

“We’re going to make the precedent,” she says. “We’ll make it come true. We can’t do that if we’re working against each other.”

Héctor blinks.

“‘We’?” he echoes, and then, “Wait. I know that face. That face means we’re going to steal something.”

And Imelda smiles. “I have an idea.”

 

*

 

Does she know how she’s going to implement her idea?

Not at all.

So it surprises her when the opportunity arises three days later, with a flower cart from Costa Chica.

Like all the others, it tries to pass through what had once been groves of coffee and fig trees and meets an impassable road, forced to double-back through the village. The cut flowers are kept in carefully-sealed containers behind the driver’s seat, to keep them from rotting too quick on the journey, but the back of the cart is full of troughs of dirt, crowded with rows of bulbs and bushes that won’t be cut until they get to market. Like civilians in an overcrowded train carriage, they look a little disgruntled by this arrangement, shoving branches into each other and rioting color everywhere.

Since it’s unlikely he’s going to reach his destination before his product goes bad, the driver pulls the cart to the side inside the defender’s wall and trims off stems right there, wrapping them in wax paper and selling them as bouquets to the glassworkers who take them to their workshops for inspiration.

More importantly, though — when the sun goes down and the children are sent up to sleep, the skies miraculously clear of rain, they drag the tables dragged out of local establishments and set them up in the square, and the driver brings his own instrument.

It’s five drums lashed together with rope that he can either sit behind or carry by a strap around his neck, and the music it makes isn’t anything they’ve ever heard before. It’s as if all their usual songs suddenly have a racing pulse.

It makes Imelda want to move.

“Dance with me,” she demands of her husband.

Héctor nods absently. “Yeah, yeah, in a minute — how is he doing that?”

Imelda rolls her eyes, recognizing the avid enthusiasm in his voice and knowing, fondly, that he won’t budge from that spot until he has every tick of the hand memorized. She plants her elbows on the table and settles in to wait, glancing around to see what people are pouring out of bottles, and then a hand extends itself into her peripheral.

She looks up.

Ernesto waggles his fingers at her wordlessly. Imelda’s throat clicks.

They haven’t spoken since he brought her husband off in front of her.

Without breaking eye contact, she takes his hand and lets him pull her to her feet.

Together, they go out into the center of the square, where almost immediately the music picks them up and spins them away. It’s easy, of course, because her body knows Ernesto’s from years of performing alongside him, and she doesn’t have to worry about him: she can let those drums beat, beat, beat.

Someone gets her a glass, which she knocks back to whoops of appreciation and a ticked eyebrow from Ernesto. Wiping her mouth, she kicks her shoes off, grabs fistfuls of her skirts and hikes them up to free her legs.

She might as well have cocked a pistol in a crowded room, from the sharpening attention she feels from all around the square. She doesn’t know if they’ve cleared all the other dancers — Ernesto has a tendency to do that, wherever he goes. Or maybe she does. She doesn’t care.

He sweeps his hat off, sets it aside. He bows to her.

“Shall we?” he calls.

At the start of the next eight-count, they come together, and Imelda’s laugh bubbles out of her, overfull, and she sees the flash of his teeth in response.

And the strangest part, the part Imelda isn’t sure what to do with, is that while she’s certain Ernesto would be more inconvenienced than genuinely grieved if she were kicked in the head by her horse tomorrow, she’s not convinced that he doesn’t love her. An almost love, the kind you have for something you cannot mimic or replace.

For Imelda …

You can’t spend every waking moment with someone, on stage and off, without ...

No, scratch that.

You can’t love Héctor without loving Ernesto, too. That’s the core of it. She loves him because Héctor makes it the easiest thing in the world. That’s the precedent.

Ernesto makes everything his: Héctor’s music, her music, this music, and she wants to believe that if Héctor composes it — this, the three of them, the story in which they live, love, are happy — then Ernesto could bring it to life.

The music crashes to a halt, drums and horns and strings separating back into component parts, and Imelda’s dipped nearly to the ground. If she lets her head fall back, it will touch dirt. Ernesto’s got one hand under her back, the other pinning her thigh to his hip as counterbalance. The bad knee trembles.

She heaves one breath, then another. He pants back at her.

He could make it happen, she thinks, and he could make other people believe it, too.

The spike of lust goes right through her and pins her right here, inside her body with all its desperate parts. With a grunt, he pulls her upright, and she hitches herself against him. Hand to the back of his neck, nails digging in, leg around his hips and skirts pulled up shockingly, indecently high.

She breathes out against the bottom of his ear. “Come to bed with us.”

When Imelda Rivera begs, she’s found, her voice drops and scratches like it’s been scraped up from somewhere deep.

Ernesto’s fingers tighten. She can feel every part of him, pressed against him like this. It’s like the drums haven’t stopped — the throb of them is in her head, her heart, between her legs.

“Why?” he scrapes back at her, low.

Imelda shudders. Holds on tighter. Somewhere, she can hear the applause for the musicians, the whistling, shouting. Encores are called, in several languages. Someone’s probably watching them — let them, Imelda thinks with sudden abandon. Let them pity Héctor, let them smirk down their noses at her, let them be smug. They don’t know anything.

“Because,” she rolls her forehead against his temple. “Because we want you, Ernesto. Every part of you. Don’t you know that?”

“I,” Ernesto starts, and sets her on her feet.

Imelda sways until her center of balance shifts away from him back to herself. She settles her skirts back in place, and they look at each other, searching.

His eyes are huge, blown black. He looks wrecked, and nobody’s even touched him. Much.

His throat bobs. “Lead the way, Imelda.”

She exhales. “You’re deferring to me? You never do that.”

“I’m deferring to the master of the craft,” he corrects, throwing his voice into it, and oh, oh, Imelda needs him on his back and she needs it five minutes ago.

They weave between the tables, the knots of people drinking, accepting the glasses that get toasted to them and sucking on slices of lime to get the taste out. She plants one in Héctor’s hand when they reach him, and he spares her a grateful smile. The drummer from Costa Chica’s telling them about the bote drum, how the pueblos negros do it differently — he’s seen what they’ve got in those fancy orchestras up in Coahuila, and it’s got nothing on this.

Imelda waits, then brushes Héctor’s hair away from his ear so she can murmur into it, “Come upstairs with us.”

“Yes,” he agrees distractedly, “of course, in a minute.”

She shrugs. “Suit yourself,” and plants a good-bye kiss on his cheek, sneaking in a whispered, “I just thought you’d want to see what it looked like, me on top of him,” before flouncing back to her feet.

Ernesto quirks an eyebrow at her when she takes his arm and starts pulling him away, but he follows her stage directions without comment.

They’ve barely reached the back stairs of the gatehouse when Héctor collides with them. He’s got her shoes, Ernesto’s hat.

“Now?” he demands, wild-eyed. “We’re doing this now?”

Imelda gets the door open and they tumble into the cool interior, the stone steps leading up, and as she hauls the door closed again, she reaches greedily for her husband, only to find that space already occupied. Ernesto uses their momentum to turn him into the wall, sliding his hands over Héctor’s jaw. Héctor fumbles for him, dragging him in. The kiss is open-mouthed, searing, and Ernesto shoves his hips up, rolling against him with intent.

She exhales sharply, unsteadily, and rocks her weight forward on the naked soles of her feet, caught in the undertow.

“Yes, now,” she confirms.

Ernesto reaches in her direction, unseeing, but Imelda knows a cue when it’s trusted to her. She steps into the hand and it curls around her jaw, thumb tilting her chin up — and as soon as the kiss ends, he pulls her forward and offers her up.

In the narrow stairwell, Héctor’s laugh is breathless and too close, closer than her own heartbeat. He takes her face from Ernesto and kisses her, slow and so very thorough, until her fingertips are tingling and her mouth feels spread to twice its size.

“Oh.” Ernesto sounds as shaky as she feels. “I forgot. I forgot how much you love him.”

“Yeah.” It takes physical effort to peel herself away. “He’s the only song I’ve got stuck in my head, sometimes.”

Then, because it seems only fair, she turns his head towards her and kisses him next.

He’s got a fat mouth, she knew that already, to match his broad jaw and broad chin, and when it parts under hers, she tastes his tongue and it takes no leap of the imagination to imagine what it will feel like, between her legs. God, she wants her hands on his shoulders, she wants him to kneel. She grabs him tight, kisses him with fervor.

The noise Héctor makes is nearly a whimper.

“Come on,” he begs, right next to their faces. “Upstairs. We can’t do this here.”

Ernesto blinks once, twice — and then pulls back. Their words are finally registering.

“Wait. You planned this?” comes out of him. “How long have you planned this?”

“Since you brought Imelda into it,” Héctor answers.

“Since I … “ His eyes widen. “You know about that?”

“Of course I do, she told me,” and for a moment, Ernesto looks so shocked, and shamed, that Imelda now knows that if their situations had been reversed, if it was Ernesto who’d walked in on Héctor and Imelda, and Imelda who held him there to prove something — then it wouldn’t have crossed his mind to confess it.

That’s why we’re not following your lead, she thinks, exasperated.

 

*

 

When she finds him the next morning, Héctor’s in the hen yard, sitting on top of the feed bin and plucking out something jaunty on his guitar.

Someone’s already come out to scatter feed for the hens, and they peck industriously at the ground around his feet, profoundly unmoved by the performance. It’s still too early for the majority of the workmen to be up, and Imelda can hear shouting from an open doorway further down the street, but the yard is empty except for her husband and the birds.

“Good morning,” he calls to her, and she acknowledges it with a gesture.

She stands there, listening — a much more attentive audience than the chickens, she’d like to think — and when she finally picks her way across the yard to join him, he puts a hand over the bridge, silencing it.

“You’re very quiet,” he remarks. “Are you mad?”

He lifts his hand from the guitar as he says it, puts it on her hip with the same care, a gentle strum of his thumb along her bones.

“No,” she answers, and, when he still looks concerned, “no, I’m not. I don’t know what I’m feeling.”

He keeps his eyes turned up to her, worrying the inside of his cheek. “I feel like I should have discussed strategy with you more.”

Only you, Imelda thinks, fondly, and touches his chin.

The scraggly hair there doesn’t quite cover the scar from the villistas. She runs her thumb over it.

“It was my idea,” she reminds him. “But when the moment came, I seized it. I didn’t know if we’d get another one.”

She leans her weight against him.

“The strategy was to have fun,” she checks. “We did, didn’t we?”

With his free hand, he lifts the strap of his guitar over his head, setting it down on the ground. The nearest hen freezes, eyeing it suspiciously, and then forgets what she’s doing.

“Yes. I did.” His eyes drift shut. “Did you?”

“I did. Where did you learn to talk like that?”

To her delight, his ears go bright red. He stammers something nonsensical, pauses, collects himself.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he says with dignity. She folds the tip of his ear down, feeling stupidly affectionate about it. “I can be suave!”

“You’re eighteen, you’ve never been suave a day in your life,” she assures him. “This was something else,” and, before he can add anything to that, she darts a look around — they’re still alone, barring chickens — and then pulls her skirts up over her knees and slings her leg across his thighs.

Surprised, he catches her with hands high on her hip, on her bare knee, and, acting on instinct, tugs her in until she’s straddling him properly.

She tips his head up. Holds his gaze. “I want you to do it again.”

“Oh,” he says.

For a long moment, neither of them move.

Then the hand on her knee slides up, finding where her leg meets her body, the muscle there pulled taut with the effort of maintaining her position. His fingers curl in, but his thumb goes low, pressing down against her in a way that puts her eyelids at half-mast.

“You do?” He leans up, turning his face into hers so he’s talking against her cheek. “What do you want me to tell you?”

His voice catches in her; warm, liquid, hooking into somewhere visceral and pulling on her.

“That I watched my best friend fill my wife?” His voice goes lower. “Fill her up completely? Should I tell you I liked it — that I want him in turn to watch us, the way I watched you, the way you watched him and I?”

His thumb drags against her in a slow circle. Imelda takes the name of the Lord in vain.

“Did you like it?” he sounds curious.

She huffs, pulling away and tossing her head to get the stray hairs out of her face.

“What?” he says innocently. “I had him first. My perception is skewed. You should tell me.”

“He’s thicker than you,” she says frankly, and his eyebrows pop up. She bites one, because it’s there and she can, and that’s what he gets for goading her. “I didn’t know they could come that fat, or feel that good.”

And then there’d been the look on Ernesto’s face, and Imelda always joked but didn’t actually believe it until that very moment, that he’d never had a woman — that this was something Imelda got to keep for her very own.

Héctor mouths a kiss along her jaw, then lets out a little laugh.

“Dios mío, Imelda,” he says in admiration. “Where is that coming from?”

“Don’t act proud,” Imelda tells him archly. “Riding in the saddle a certain way can get me this worked up, too, you’re not special.”

He lets that roll right off. “Really?” His eyebrows haven’t come down from their surprised look; surprised and delighted are the two expressions of her husband’s that she knows best. “That’s fascinating. I just get saddle sores. Say —”

Whatever he’s going to ask, Imelda doesn’t wait to hear it: she fists her hand in his hair and pulls his head back sharply, positioning it so she can hold his half-parted mouth against her own.

Oh, yeah, Ernesto had the right idea: he likes this.

“Let’s go back. Tell me about this fantasy of yours. What are we doing in it?” She kisses his top lip, then his bottom lip, giving it her full attention. Then she flicks her eyes up. “Am I sucking him off?”

He curses. “Imelda — !”

“What?” she says back, trying to match the tone he used. “Maybe I want to try it. You made it look so easy.”

Under her, his thighs give an involuntary jerk, crushing them together.

Ay, Imelda thinks at the feel of him. He’s taken his hand from in between their bodies, so she doesn’t have his thumb to rock down against anymore, but at this point she doesn’t really need it.

She pulls back so she can watch the swell of color in his eyes. Slow, like she has all the time in the world, she kisses him until he’s kissing her back helplessly, hungrily, his hands clutching her against him.

Then she drags her mouth across his cheek to murmur, “You may like it like that, but he doesn’t fill me up the way you do.”

A pause. She doesn’t think he’s breathing.

At last, Héctor says, “Please don’t misunderstand me, mi amor,” in a strangled voice. “But if I don’t get inside of you in the next five minutes I may actually die.”

She laughs. “Oh, right, and you’ve never been one for exaggeration — “

— and then cuts off abruptly, because he surges to his feet with her still wrapped around him, spinning them and backing them up against the wall of the henhouse. It’s not the Consequela stables, but her body remember this, knows this position, the rough wood against her back and her legs off the ground, and floods her with heat preemptively.

They hold like that, watching each other.

“— come on, then,” Imelda demands, breathless. She can’t reach his belt from this angle. “Come on, no one is watching but God. Not even Ernesto.”

 

*

 

What follows in the weeks after is what her mother would have called a jackrabbit’s spring.

The spell that falls on young lovers, newlyweds, and maybe it’s late in coming, but Héctor and Imelda went straight from the altar to the road and never got the opportunity to have this, this thing that makes songbirds do acrobatics, where a day is a strange one if Imelda is not on her back for some part of it —

Or, more accurately, does not have Héctor on his.

They spend all day on it once, when the roadwork’s stalled while the engineers sort their equipment, everything bottlenecking because of one malfunctioning part. That time is a luxury they’ve never had before, and Imelda learns how many times she can come in one go-around (eight, to Héctor’s three, for the record.)

Ask her what her favorite sights in the world are, and for a long time her answer is this:

The first, of course, is the view of San Juan Albán from the train station, standing on the platform — that first glimpse of home, the mountainside flush with fog and all that phenomenal green, everywhere you look, the kind of thing that makes you think of music even when none is playing. Then there’s that last stretch before you reach the ranch where Chicharrón and Gabriel hang their hats, where it’s nothing but red rock and fencepost cactus, stretching from here to the vanishing point. Puebla City, the candy-colored buildings and the wrought-iron windowboxes, that you can’t look at without wanting suddenly to belong — and a packed showroom, standing room only, just for them — and looking down the length of her own naked body to the tousled head between her thighs.

She knows she’s got it bad when they find lice on one of the contractors and not even the immediate wildfire spread of it through the gatehouse can dampen her spirits. She oils her scalp, wraps her head in piplin punishingly tight to suffocate the infestation, and teams up with the other women to shave every last man and child bald.

“Not me,” Ernesto begs her. “Por favor, Imelda, don’t do that to me.”

“You’ll feel better,” she sing-songs.

“I promise, I won’t.”

Imelda shows teeth. He squints at her, suspicious that she might be enjoying this.

She says, “You’re just traumatized because we did Héctor before we did you.”

“And he looks hideous!” He gestures. “Remember me showing you that picture of the radio tower, with its big transceiver dish? Those are his ears. He had hair covering them before. To protect us.”

She puts the back of her wrist against her mouth, trying to suppress the laughter. “I am going to tell him you said that.”

“I think he knows!” Ernesto squawks. And, “Please, Imelda.”

Imelda hesitates.

“Well,” she says, after a beat. “I suppose it’s nothing that a little diligence and care can’t handle. We can save your good looks.”

“They’re all I have,” and something in his voice goes crooked, knocked off-center. He doesn’t sound like he’s joking.

So instead of the razor, Imelda brings a comb so fine you can barely see the light between its teeth, and sits him down so she can pick the nits out, one-by-one. He doesn’t complain, no matter how she tugs or pinches, not even when his knee stiffens up, and since complaining has been his main form of communication ever since they set his leg, she acknowledges this effort for what it is. When she’s done, she says, “you know what to do with your bedding?” and he nods and wordlessly leans against her knees. She squeezes his shoulder.

She knows.

 

*

 

The next time Imelda’s separated from the others because of her monthlies, she helps the women tend the garden and listens to them gossip, the freer way they talk when they know no man is listening. Eventually, they shift into teasing her: her preoccupation with her husband has not gone unnoticed.

One woman props her chin on her fist, grinning knowingly. She’s got two fake teeth, one made of solid gold and the other of opal.

“Have you tried —“ she asks, and then must switch to Zapotec or another language. Imelda frowns.

“I’m sorry, a what?”

“It’s a,” and then the shape she makes with her hand down low between her legs is completely unmistakable. She mimes buckling something. “— with a strap that goes —“

Imelda slaps her hands over her ears.

“I am Catholic!” she yelps, and everyone around her busts out laughing. “We don’t do that!”

“Ay yi yi, those were around long before the Catholics. Think about it, little esposita, you might want to try it.”

Then, towards the end of her sequestering, Héctor steals her second-best outfit and sneaks in to see her. He manages this by keeping his shaved head covered and using a low, passably grumpy imitation of her voice, and Imelda’s almost insulted that it works.

He bolts the door behind him.

“Hey, how come you guys get the fancy courtyard?” he’s asking. “It’s gorgeous! Why don’t the men get one?”

Imelda makes a rude noise. “Because you’re asking me that question.”

“All right, but —“

“Did you really just do all that for the reason I think you did.” She does not move from the window.

Héctor’s mouth quirks at the corner, and yes, that’s exactly why he’s here.

“It’ll be quick,” he tries to tell her, “no one will notice —“

“It had better not be quick!” Imelda hisses back. “What’s the point if you’re in and out in less than three minutes?”

“That’s hurtful, I last longer —“

She arches an eyebrow.

He points a finger at her. “Those were extenuating circumstances,” comes out of him defensively, and she rolls her eyes.

“Aren’t you the one always telling me the whole point is the build-up?” she fires. “How do you expect to manage that here, hmm?”

There’s a pause, where he watches her like it doesn’t occur to him to look anywhere else, and she in turn watches his chest move under the familiar embroidered collar of her second-best blouse, where a faint sheen of sweat is starting. This is what he looked like, too, when she first met him: in skirts and boots, sneaking in somewhere he shouldn’t be, desperately in love and too overwhelmed by it to think it through.

He never outgrew that. It grew with him.

He draws himself up, says quietly, “come here, Imelda. We don’t have to do anything, I promise, we can just —“

“No, you come here,” Imelda interrupts, and says it again, “come here,” with such a tone that he’s moving before she’s even done speaking, reaching for the ties at his waist.

And it’s a sudden flash of an image, of Héctor on his knees, with — and her behind him. She has an idea of how it’d work. She’d asked them all the questions she could think of when she had them, knowing she’d never be able to ask in the daylight — are they going to do that now, do they do that every time? No, not usually. There’s a lot two men can do spontaneously, but that’s not one of them. It requires prep.

Worth it, though, Ernesto had said into the pillow, and Héctor laughed; throaty, self-satisfied.

She holds up her hand, and he stops undressing.

Slowly, she shifts against the windowsill, widening her stance, then lowers her voice and beckons him.

“Leave the skirts on.”

 

*

 

Her pinto mare hardly waits for her to get settled in her saddle before she starts dancing, leaning forward on her hooves. Imelda shifts around, watching Ernesto mount his horse from the other side so he doesn’t have to swing his stiff leg over.

“I don’t know about you,” she says, while the mares nicker excitedly to one another. “But I am ready to disappear.”

He looks to Héctor, who looks to her.

Grinning, she whistles a command to the horses.

After two months of living cheek-by-jowl with a hundred other people, the relief of being out under the open sky again is unspeakable. They make it down to the coast, and for five days, they don’t speak to another living soul.

Ranchers are easy to avoid, fishermen doubly so, and they camp along a bluff made inhospitable to traffic by a sudden drop into the Pacific on one side, and a drop into a mesquite grove on the other, trees grown so thick and thorny it gives the illusion of solid ground, like you could start walking across the tops of them. With the incoming tide, the wind all but strips a layer of skin off their cheeks, and even that’s welcome, after that jungle heat. They tie their hats to their packs and sleep to the colossal crashing of the ocean on the rocks below.

“We really need to get you a new guitar,” she remarks to Ernesto, as he bungles a chord on Héctor’s and they all cringe.

He frowns, fiddling with the tuning pegs.

“Maybe it’s a sign from God that it’s time I try my hand at something else. We could use a trumpet, couldn’t we?”

Imelda and Héctor stare at him.

“No, you’re right,” he scoffs at the thought. “No one remembers the horns. We need to find another guitar.” A beat. “Not right this second, though.”

“Not right this second,” Héctor agrees, shifting his head, which is pillowed on Imelda’s thigh.

She watches him throughout the day, and she knows Héctor does, too, but that destructive spite that had so characterized his recovery seems to have evaporated as soon as they hit the road again.

He kisses Héctor in front of her, now.

Absentminded kissing — casual kissing, without a thought to the performance, the way you kiss when you’re sure of a person. He never used to do that. They used to steal every kiss, and Imelda let them, because she thought it was normal.

On the nights he wants Héctor in his bedroll, he asks.

“Can I borrow your husband?”

“Please do,” she answers, because they’d never asked, either. Everything was sleight of hand, and euphemism, and part of her wishes she could let them stay there, but out in the open that isn’t possible yet, not when anyone could come across them. “And make sure I’m dead asleep before you return him, I’ll kill him if he snores at me and then where will we be?”

And:

“Can I borrow him?” she’ll ask, and Ernesto waves her on, saying, “I’m busy, this will take me forever.”

“You learned that from me,” Héctor says to them, in a voice gone soft, pulpy, overripe as fruit, like it’s going to start leaking. “I’m the one always borrowing things.”

They don’t invite Ernesto back for a repeat performance — not immediately, anyway.

She can tell Héctor’s working his way up to asking. There’s no script for this, and she’s willing to wait if it means Héctor gets it right.

Over the next few months, in idle moments while she’s filing back the horse’s hooves or working her hair, twisting the ends and wrapping it up the way her mother taught her, she’ll watch Héctor and Ernesto together and wonder what they can try, the next the three of them are in bed.

What a great many things they are capable of accomplishing, if she and Ernesto are in cooperation, not contention.

 

*

 

What changes, of course, is her.

It’s the beginning of the year and the weather’s drying out rapidly. Imelda wants to push through rancher territory again, whereas Ernesto’s convinced they’re better than that now. It’s 1918, President Carranza has now lasted longer in office than any president before him in eight years, and Ernesto’s eye turns once more to Mexico City. To recording studios and phonographs. He wants their music to reach the borders, those places a map will try to tell you Mexico ends — except Mexico goes where its people sing its songs, and no map can ever put a line around that.

But Héctor shakes his head.

Decisively, he says, “We’re going back — we’ve got a stop we need to make in the central valleys. Imelda will need other women around her soon.”

Imelda looks at Ernesto. Ernesto looks back at her. She’s not sure which of them is more surprised.

“¿Qué?” says Ernesto.

Héctor looks back and forth between them, and slowly starts to grin. Once again, he’s the first to figure it out.

“She’s going to have a baby.”

 

*

 

Here is the list of things you need to know about Socorro “Coco” Rivera, who at this point in the story is no bigger than a nugget of gold:

1. The first time she reads the poems of Gabriela Mistral, a Chilean educator brought to Mexico under President Obregón’s new program aimed at raising the literacy rates in Mexican children, she holds the slim little book to her heart and weeps. Here it all is, the lullaby of Ternura and the instant familiarity of the locas mujeres, the madwomen wailing because the silenced couldn’t do it for themselves. Something inside of Coco stops moving, and starts, all at once; but that’s what poetry does, in whatever form it comes in. It’s what moves you when you’re standing still.

2. After songwritipoetry, her favorite thing in the world is a well-executed pun. Have you heard the one about the bumblebee?

3. They replace the well cover, and her injuries heal. She keeps her promise, but the urge doesn’t stop. How can you feel the kick of fabric around your legs, the cobbles under your feet, and not want to spin your skirts out and dance? Do your heels not tap out their own rhythm? Does your heart not beat for you, your blood not move you? How can that live inside of you — only for you to ignore it?

4. All that goes away when her daughter dies. The heart stops dancing after a thing like that.

5. At the age of 100, she officially becomes the oldest living person in Santa Cecilia, a title she keeps for five months before her death in July 2018. No one expected her to outlive the previous record-holder, but something happened there towards the end. They’ve never seen her act so young.

 

*

 

The way his mother sits down on the edge of her mattress is a collapse that happens in stages, so that her bones almost seem to sink into each other. She removes her hairpiece, dropping it onto the dummy waiting on her bedside table. Héctor fetches her shoes and lines them up against the wall.

“Mamá … ” he starts, and doesn’t know where to go from there.

She sighs, rubbing at the places her tattoos join over her eye sockets.

“I don’t know what you thought was going to happen, mijo,” she says to him.

God, she sounds so tired.

Héctor feels about two inches tall.

“Mamá, I —“

“You cannot force your way across the bridge.”

“Do you need anything?” Héctor cuts in quickly. “Can I get you —“

“The guards are never going to let it happen.”

“— think there’s some leftover chocolate, I could melt it in with some cocoa mix if you wanted.”

“They can arrest you for that! Do you understand — “

“I’m not doing anything wrong!” he protests. “It’s not like I want to go back and steal anybody’s life! It’s just — I died and my daughter doesn’t know what happened, I need to go — “

“And you think you’re the only one with unfinished business?” she shouts over him, suddenly furious. “You think I wouldn’t have fought the stone Tlacateccatl and all his men for the chance to speak to you one one last time, to protect you from your father, to let you know I never meant to die? You really think I don’t love you that much?”

“No! No, that’s not what I — “

“Because that’s not how it works, Héctor. You might have good intentions, but not everybody does. If you break the rules — even if you think you have a good reason! — then so will they. You will set a precedent that cannot be undone. The dead stay on this side of the bridge, the living stay on that side, except for one night a year. To undo this, you will undo us all.”

Héctor, shamefaced, doesn’t lift his eyes from his shoes and takes the scolding.

It’s nothing the Department of Afterlife Affairs hasn’t already told him, of course, but it’s different coming from his mother.

It had been a gliding craft and harness this time, its undersides painted the same murky purple of true night to disguise it from the guards below. Héctor had accounted for a lot of variables, but he hadn’t considered the curiosity of the alebrijes. In his original calculations, he had enough height to glide all the way across the bridge, but in practice, he didn’t even make it to the gates before he was batted out of the sky.

It had taken him the rest of the night, not to mention a lot of help from perplexed strangers, to collect all his bones again.

(He supposes he should be grateful none of them were broken — he’s seen it, among Los Olvidados, the fractures, splints that don’t come off. He can’t imagine what that must be like; all you’ve got are your bones.)

Of course, once he was reassembled, the Bridge Authority was waiting for him, and they sent a dispatcher to go collect his mother.

She sighs again, and draws her knees up, rolling over onto her side.

Héctor takes this as permission to grab her blanket and tuck her in, compulsively smoothing down the places where the embroidery’s started to come up. His mother watches him, her glass eyeballs roving. If there’s any color in her tattoos, he can’t see it in the dark.

“Don’t you see?” she says, soft and pleading. “I know it’s been a bad year, but you can’t.”

“I’m sorry, Mamá,” is all Héctor can manage.

He’s been dead for twenty-one years.

Exactly as long as he’d been alive. From here on out, he’ll have more experience being dead than he does living.

Coco would be twenty-four. She’s lived longer than Héctor ever got the chance to, and there are days standing in Casa Rivera where Héctor just wants to put his head down and scream, because does she know? Does she know? Does she still think of him — or has everyone around her defined her by his absence, the same way no one let Héctor or Ernesto forget they were orphans, the same way los Consequela never let Imelda forget she was only tolerated out of charity to her dead father?

He remembers what it had been like, losing a parent, and knowing with pure conviction that his father loved the memory of his buried children more than he could ever bring himself to love his living son. Héctor remembers spells where he hated his father — corrosively, spittingly.

Has Coco ever gone through something similar?

How could she not, when Héctor’s never made it across the bridge to tell her otherwise?

“I know you love her,” his mother says suddenly. “I love her, too — what a joy it was to get to see the two of you when we crossed over on Día de Muertos. I’m so proud of what you had managed to give her, Héctor, and that’s why I need you to see.”

“I see,” he says quietly, and leans down to kiss her bare forehead.

Another long moment passes. This time, when she speaks, it’s an unintelligible mumble, and Héctor knows he’s lost her. He swallows a stab of pride, that she held out for so long, that she didn’t let the Bridge Authority see how far gone she is.

“Where’s my baby?” comes out, suddenly clear.

“I’ll bring her in,” Héctor promises, and squeezes her hand, but carefully.

Out in the hall, he checks in on his siblings. They don’t wake up for very long anymore, but when he eases the door open, his sister — once his older sister, and a constant torment — gets up and comes over to sleepily give him a hug around the waist. He holds her for a moment, murmurs, “hola, cielito, happy Día de Muertos,” then lets her go back to bed. Her bones are too dark against the blanket, the same color as tombstones.

He fetches his other sister, the infant, out of her cradle.

She vocalizes a protest at the disturbance, and he says, “oh, I know,” in sympathy. She’s swaddled up too tight to move; her bones have started dislocating with every forceful kick.

He carries her out into the hall, stopping outside his own room. More than a dozen notches are gouged into the doorjamb.

“I made those for Coco,” he tells her, gesturing. “I had to guess, of course, on all the heights.”

At twenty-four, her notches haven’t changed much in several years. Héctor gave her Imelda’s height, not sure he could stand it if she inherited his. He has no way of knowing. He doesn’t know anything about who she became; everything about the Coco he’s notched here is fabricated.

Years ago, when it first started to sink in that neither Imelda nor Ernesto were ever going to put him on an ofrenda (why? Why?) Héctor spent months trying to track down anybody who was going to Santa Cecilia to collect offerings on Día de Muertos, and beg them to bring him news of a musician and her daughter. The response he got was the same every time: I found nobody matching that description, sorry, muchacho.

So, without knowing otherwise, he’s given her everything he can think of: features and habits and interests that sometimes don’t make sense and are often contradictory, but Héctor Rivera wants it down on record that he will never run out of things to give his daughter.

“That’s your niece,” he whispers to the baby. “You’re her aunt. And I would have really liked for you two to meet.”

He turns away from the jamb. His mother would have forgotten her request by now, and trying to bring her daughter to her would only confuse her, so he takes his sister out onto the balcony instead, watching the traffic continue on below; the dead calling out to each other, comparing offerings and happily exchanging updates on the living relatives they got to see. Too soft for anyone else to hear, he sings her “The Blessing Song.”

It’s the last time he does so.

He’s managed to keep his family out of Shanty-town this whole time, as if by doing so he could convince them that they weren’t being forgotten. That if you weren’t washed up with Los Olvidados, then it wasn’t happening.

It must have been Madre Emmanuela, or one of the other nuns, or maybe Francis Esposito the furniture-maker, who as a young man intervened in Héctor’s childhood escapades more than once, saying, “I remember your mother, she would have wanted me to.”

Whoever they are, when they forget Héctor’s family, they do it all at once — he loses them all in one go.

His mother, his brothers, his sisters, greying out slowly until they sink inwards in a startling rush of gold dust, and nothing’s left but their clothes, their shoes, his mother’s single gold tooth, and Héctor himself. Left behind. Again.

How is it fair, he thinks, over and over again.

How is it possibly fair that God could give them life and God could give them death and God could let it be possible to still lose people?

 

*

 

For days, after, he drifts through their home, mute and miserable and too keenly aware of the emptiness in every room. As he navigates the near-dawn gloom one morning, he forgets to watch his feet and nearly trips over his siblings’ shoes.

Without thinking, he bends to straighten them out, and the memory strikes him as clean as a blow from behind:

His father doing this exact same thing, keeping those shoes lined heels-straight against the wall, like miniature shrines.

For a long moment, Héctor doesn’t move.

Then, without a word, he gathers up every last one of them, pries his own two shoes from his feet, and tosses them in a jumble inside the closet. Something’s making a noise, terrible, hurt, held behind clenched teeth. It might be him. They’re gone, they’re gone, they don’t need shoes.

Blind and barefoot, he backtracks the way he came, but a glint of something on the kitchen counter arrests his momentum.

His mother’s single gold tooth sits in an ashtray; the smallest, cleanest dish he could find for it. Héctor stops, blinks, and remembers, too, painting one of the teeth on his guitar, thinking he could make it his ofrenda and take it with him everywhere.

That guitar — it’s still out there somewhere, with his living family.

The family he will see again.

He picks up the tooth and puts it in a lockbox.

He keeps going.

 

*

 

“I can get you across the bridge, amigo.”

Héctor looks up, then down. At rush hour, the trolley is standing room only, everyone budging up and pretending to make room for each other even when there’s none to have. When the track reaches the top of its arc, the Land of the Dead seems to shrink beneath them, growths reaching up towards them like stalagmites calcifying in a cave.

The man who spoke is Los Olvidados, he’s got to be. He could pass off his ratty clothes as ironic if he had to, but there’s no hiding the tombstone color of his bones. His tattoos look like someone had gouged them out while the cement was still drying.

“I’m … sorry,” says Héctor. “Were you talking to me?”

“You’re the guitarist, aren’t you? Plays in the student square?” At the look on Héctor’s face, he shunts his jaw with something that isn’t a smile, isn’t even close, says “thought so,” and turns his head away.

Héctor takes the hint, and when a seat opens up across the aisle from him, he takes it. They pass his stop, continuing further and further out, until there’s hardly anybody left in the trolley car at all. Just a young couple at the front discussing the newly-arrived child they’ve agreed to foster and what they’ll do if his biological family in the Land of the Living doesn’t put him on an ofrenda come November — or worse, what will happen if they do. He told the Department of Family Reunions it had been his big brother who’d killed him. Beyond them, there’s a man leaning out the back with a shoeshine kit tucked under his arm, trying to coax his dragon alebrije to come inside. Smoke curls from its nostrils, so it ignores him and dutifully remains parked under the sign for the smoking section, picking at its yellow-and-green pinstriped scales. Lastly, there’s Héctor and Héctor’s hope sitting alongside him; he is aware of it with every nerve ending.

Finally, the couple gets off and the man turns his head with an audible creak.

“I can get you back to the Land of the Living,” he says. “I’ve done it before. It’s amazing what can go in and out when nobody’s looking.”

“How do you do it?” And, quickly, because his mother’s lecture is still ringing in his skull, “I’m not looking to break any laws. I don’t want to return to my former life, none of that, I just want to cross the bridge like everyone else does on Día de Muertos. That’s all.”

A thoughtful pause. “Yeah,” he decides. “We can do that.”

He tilts his head, studying Héctor squint-eyed. Unease prickles along the bare bones at the back of Héctor’s neck, a feeling like his hairpiece has been knocked askew and everyone can see it but him. He shoves it down ruthlessly.

“It’s got to be me who makes the arrangements,” the man says. “Better for everyone that way. I’ll tell you where to go and what to do, and they’ll know to expect you. You’ve got to be back before sunrise, of course.”

“How do I know it’s real?” Héctor says.

“Why would I lie?” He sticks his hand out. “Tomas.”

“Héctor.” They shake on it.

Another shunt of that jaw, a not-smile. “Now, of course, there’s the manner of payment …”

Well, yes, of course. It would have been weird if it hadn’t come up. He says, “Marigold money I’m short on, amigo, but I’m a fair hand at anything I try, I could —“

“I want your teeth.”

“I … beg your pardon?”

“Your teeth,” and he bares his own, broken and grey. “Yours are young and new.”

“Not all my teeth! Are you crazy? My bones are all I’ve got left, and I’m only asking for one day.”

“Your front ones then,” he presses. “Top ones now, as down payment.”

“One tooth now,” Héctor says repressively. “And two more when I return.”

Tomas eyes him, beady and keen, then spits and nods and reaches down between his feet. He comes up with something long, skinny, that Héctor had dismissed as some sort of walking cane, and now sees that it is not. That is a wrought-iron poker.

He surges forward and swings. Héctor sees it whistling towards him, then sees nothing at all.

When he regains consciousness, he’s got a conductor’s boot in his ribs, a scrap of paper tucked like a pocket square in the front of his jacket, and a gaping new hole in his mouth.

He goes home to his empty house and pulls out his lockbox. He takes his mother’s gold tooth out. He spins it between his fingers.

He shoves it into the hole, wriggles it until it fits.

He keeps going.

 

*

 

He gets wiser about accepting help from strangers, after that. He gets cannier.

 

*

 

The year is 1942. A stage accident in Mexico City cuts an actor’s life tragically short.

Héctor hears about it while he’s at the Department of Afterlife Affairs, getting served his zoning papers. It turns out he cannot continue owning the Rivera section of his skyscraper if he’s the only one occupying it, not unless he can afford to pay the vacancy taxes that pile up when you’ve got that much space and no one using it. It’s not like anyone’s expecting the Land of the Dead’s population to shrink anytime soon, you understand, señor.

He’s not that rich. He looks at the stamp at the bottom of the page, and realizes he’s going to have to find somewhere else to live.

It’s the kind of thought that comes on you so slowly you’re already flattened by it before you even know it’s there. His bones wobble, and it’s all he can do to make it to a bench in the main rotunda before he collapses.

He doesn’t know how long he’s there — long enough that it crosses his mind to set up a tent and declare it his new property, hang it, zone whatever you like — but he’s not expecting it when a cold green nose abruptly shoves itself underneath his hands.

“Oh — hello,” he says in surprise to the alebrije, a Xolo dog with a long lolling tongue and crooked bumblebee wings. Reflexively, he gives him a scratch under the chin. “What did you need?”

The alebrije brightens at the question and drops into a play-bow.

“What?” says Héctor again. “I’m not much help, you must realize that.”

The light’s changed, he notices. It slants down through the dome overhead at a low angle. How long was he sitting there?

Teeth close around the cuff of his sleeve and give a hard tug.

“No, no, pelón,” Héctor protests. “Don’t do that! Where’s your dreamer?”

He manages to pry his sleeve free, but the dog just barks again and starts to dance around him, wings fluttering. His tongue slops out the side of his mouth. Héctor can’t tell if he’s agitated or if this is just a general canine kind of excitement. He darts another look around, hoping someone will step forward to claim him soon.

Dante!” a voice roars out.

They both jump.

But when Héctor twists around, the man’s not even looking at them. He slaps his knee, exclaiming to the group he’s with, “That’s his horse’s name! I couldn’t for the life of me remember.”

There’s a current to the air, Héctor realizes suddenly, a buzzing between the people going up and down the grand staircase, that he recognizes instinctively from being on stage. Excitement.

He straightens. What’s happened?

Two clerks come flying down the stairs, pausing by Héctor’s bench only long enough for one to fix her heel.

She’s got glossy movie-star ringlets, and as she hooks her fingers between tibia and fibula, hiking her leg up to reach her shoe, he hears her bemoaning to her partner, “— don’t have anything on me!”

The other tsks in admonishment.

“The man just died, woman, have a heart! Besides, it’s not like he’s going anywhere now. You’ve got all the time in the world to get an autograph.”

“All the more reason to get one now, while there’s still value to it!”

This happens sometimes. Héctor usually recognizes the names, but as time passes, that’s less likely to be true.

“Excuse me,” he says. “But who died?”

Their heads come up, and they say, “Ernesto de la Cruz!”

“Sudden death,” explains one.

“It’s all very sad,” says the first woman, happily.

Héctor stands.

Something unpleasant is happening in the empty space where once he’d kept his tender internal parts.

“I’ve got to go,” he announces to nobody in particular. The alebrije yelps, but he’s already beelining for the exit, thinking of nothing except not here, and, away, even though Afterlife Affairs and Family Reunions are miles apart and he doesn’t stand a chance of running into him.

Ernesto de la Cruz is dead.

Ernesto died.

His Ernesto is —

Is —

Next he knows, he’s four skyscrapers down, standing in an old gothic sector where the buttresses on the buildings all look like something alarming you’d find growing in the woods. The stone underfoot is damp, slippery in a way that reminds him of San Juan Albán. There’s a swollen feeling in his chest, like it’s about to start leaking; his ribs try to splinter with the effort of keeping it in.

He’s been collecting questions for years, stacking them up and shoving them somewhere he doesn’t have to look at them, and now the whole teetering pile is threatening to collapse and bury him. The scale of it, all these things he wants to ask Ernesto, is overwhelming.

What happened? is at the very top.

What happened to you? You didn’t outlive me by very long.

What happened to me? You ate the chorizo too, how could it have just been mine?

And why didn’t you credit me? That makes no sense, a tragically young dead composer could have been something you used, Ernesto, to get attention, to get sympathy, but you didn’t and it’s been years since I felt that strum in my chest, the one that comes from being talked about. How difficult could it have been to mention me, just once?

What’s going through his head right now, as he gets his crash-course welcome to the Land of the Dead?

Does he realize his actions in life are going to have consequences here — that Héctor will be waiting for him, that Héctor will have questions?

How did Imelda react when you told her I’d died?

My Coco, have you seen her? You’re her godfather, surely you were there — who did she grow to be?

Ernesto, I could use a hug.

And isn’t that the awful thing?

How despite all of that, there’s still a part of him that wants to sidestep the difficult parts altogether, who just wants his friend back so they can joke about it. Hey, compadre, it’s been twenty-one years since I died at twenty-one, did you do that on purpose?

That’s weakness talking, that’s loneliness, he knows that, but it happened this way last time, too. Héctor lost his mother, his siblings, but he got Ernesto out of the bargain — big-shouldered, big-voiced, the exact kind of person you could trust with your hopes. It makes complete sense, that this should happen at the same time.

Worst of all is the question buried inside all the other questions, where Héctor’s fingers scrape it up without meaning to:

No credit, no photo on the ofrenda — are you punishing me?

The both of you, is this your revenge? Because I had one job and that was to keep us together — and I failed?

He grabs the brim of his hat, yanking it down around his ears. He’s making that sound again, terrible and keening wounded. The old women on their way to evening Mass pick up their skirts and move faster, but Héctor, oblivious, keeps pacing in circles on the cobblestones.

What is he going to do? What can he do?

What would his mother tell him? Yun, Pepé — what would they tell him?

You are el santo to something, and that is your responsibility. Will doing this, will confronting him help you live your best life, here in your time of death? He loved you once. He loved you.

Past tense.

And just like that, it all comes crashing down. Héctor just lost his entire family. He doesn’t have the energy for Ernesto, too.

He picks himself up.

He keeps going.

 

*

 

It’s another four years before they’re in the same place at the same time.

He’s living in the artist’s village by then, and it reminds him of Papá Figaro’s school, the way you could hear tuning instruments and scales at all times of day, where all you had to do to host an impromptu concert was to throw open your window and start playing something everyone knew.

And Héctor’s permanently twenty-one, and where his siblings had been stuck where they were development-wise, he finds he’s still capable of learning new things, to the point where it’s almost embarrassing to hear the pieces he wrote twenty years ago. Nobody knows they’re his, of course, and the first time he hears someone complain about “Remember Me” being “amateurish drivel,” he spends four days swinging wildly between indignation and satisfaction. If Ernesto wants the credit so bad, let him stagnate in it.

Héctor knows he could be the lead musician here if he wanted to, the way they’d been in the plaza in San Juan Albán, if he focused all his energy on it.

But he can’t. He’s not going to give up trying to cross that dumb flower bridge.

He’s going to find a way to trick those guards, or fool the marigolds, or — or — or fake it somehow, just for long enough, and sure, people come to him when they want a guitarist, people come to hire him to compose something for their ceremonies or performances or advertisements. But there’s always this distance, and Héctor knows they can tell.

Still, when the famous Ernesto de la Cruz announces he’ll be visiting the artist’s village himself, looking for musicians to commandeer for his show, Yun comes straight to Héctor.

“Me?” says Héctor, eyebrows vaulted.

“It’s got to be you, amigo,” Yun tells him excitedly. “I’ll go with you!”

He lifts his fancy top hat in order to scrub at his sugarbowl haircut, and Héctor watches him scoot back and forth, wondering if he should remind him those are wool socks he’s got on and maybe he shouldn’t be shuffling that fast on Héctor’s carpet.

“Me?” he says again, slowly. “You want me to play for Ernesto de la Cruz?”

And Yun comes to an abrupt halt.

“Ah,” he says, in the tone of someone who’s remembering everything you ever told them, exactly five minutes too late. “Er.”

“Yeah,” Héctor agrees, and sits up.

When Yun was nineteen years old, living in the barrio chino in Mexico City where his whole family had been working, sleeping, marrying, speaking Nahuatl and then Spanish since the sixteenth century, his friend said to him, I’ll do it if you do it, and Yun did it and his friend did not, and Yun died and his friend did not, and even now, decades down the line, he’ll get these spells where he’ll lock himself up to scream and rage at the unfairness of it all — and since Héctor has the same kind of episodes, it brought them together.

“Yun” is a family name, his primer apellido, and Héctor never fails to find it astonishing, how openly he can talk about what it took for the Chinese like him in the barrio to retain their heritage when everyone else was trying to size up how “Mexican” they were — especially when he remembers how vehemently Imelda denied even being half-black. Was it the differences in their environments growing up, the hostilities of their communities — Yun had other Yuns, culture he could practice at home, whereas Imelda had been alienated even within her own family. Was it a matter of self-preservation?

(As a kid, on those days he caught Imelda frowning at herself in the mirror, Héctor tried to be reassuring. “Don’t worry, you can’t tell,” he’d say, and he wishes now he’d said something different. “It’s okay, you don’t look black today” solved the problem of the moment, which was that Imelda was trying to gauge how much hostility she’d be met with that day and what she could change about herself to mitigate that, but it only reinforced the overall problem: that even in Mexico there was a hierarchy of people who looked down on other people, and even the people on the bottom got to look down on people who were black, and when Mariano Consequela married Imelda’s mother he assumed he would always be there to run interference. Instead, Imelda and her brothers had to do it on their own.)

(The list of things Héctor wants to tell his wife is longer than all his bones put together. God, how he misses just talking to her.)

In all his short life, Yun never once picked up an instrument, so he only discovered his propensity for strings in death, and he’s el santo to no less than fourteen firework stands in various parts of central Mexico, says he can feel it, present in their every phosphorus smear of exploding light.

He’s also one of the few people who knows the story, all of it: how Ernesto saved Héctor’s life when they were kids. Ran away with him. Kissed him. Agreed to negotiate his wedding, to be Coco’s godfather. Begged him to stay.

Watched him die.

Ach, you sad bastards, he’d said, with sympathy, when all of it had finished pouring out. At least you can live freer, now.

Héctor went to him, too, as it slowly began to dawn on him that Ernesto was never going to credit him. That all of his most popular songs were the ones Héctor wrote for them in that songbook, sitting around cooking stones and campfires and at that little desk his wife found in Santa Cecilia — oh, there were one or two that weren’t, and you could always tell which ones those were because critics said they “lack the spark of his earlier compositions.”

Jerk.

No. Thief.

So what! Yun had said then. We all sing the folk songs, too, without knowing who wrote them. You wrote them, he performed them and made them famous, what’s the problem?

He made HIMSELF famous! Not my songs! Héctor retorted. He’s ERASING me from history.

He’d sounded petulant even to his own ears, and Yun sighed.

So what? he’d said again, impatient but not unkind. All it means is that your little girl gets to hear you on the radio. There are worse things, aren’t there?

“Who should I ask to audition with instead?” he asks now. “If not you. Mercedes, maybe? Maybe not — she’s a better soloist, I don’t want to ruin her chances.”

Héctor lifts his eyebrows. “Who said I wasn’t going with you?”

Yun blinks. “But you …”

Smirking, Héctor leans down, tugging his guitar case out from under the bed.

Whooping, Yun hops in place. “Oh-ho-ho, amigo, this will be great! Oh, oh, what if — what if they’re blind auditions, but he recognizes you by your music alone, and falls in love with you all over again!”

“I … don’t think that’s likely,” Héctor replies, swallowing around the lump of shock in his throat.

But that’s the Land of the Dead for you, where you can just say things like that, and he’d be lying if he said it doesn’t spin his head sometimes, that the most famous singer of the modern age is the same man who’d once slumped over a guitar, complaining how hard it was to keep track of what both hands were supposed to be doing, who’d once given him a shake, saying, my friend, sing it loud or don’t sing it at all, and to whom Héctor had replied, you’re the only thing I hear in my head sometimes, and deeply shocked them both. Who kissed him with morning breath. Who offered to marry Imelda so Héctor could keep her close. Who, buzzing, delighted from a phenomenal show and a fat cheque, would bar his arm across Héctor’s hips, grin up at him, and spend so long sucking at just the tip that Héctor felt corkscrewed tighter and tighter, wanting to bend in half or yell or —

Doesn’t matter.

Héctor’s been dead for twenty-five years, long enough for his love for Ernesto to have calcified over into a scaly sort of thing, only remembered when directly scratched — funny, how that can happen to something that had once been the core tenement of his being.

“When’s he coming?” he asks.

“Friday,” Yun answers, and whirls around, crossing to the door and —

“— wait — !” Héctor tries.

— wool socks, metal doorknob, Yun unsuspecting, and the electric shock is so strong that his bones go pinballing in every direction.

Héctor ducks. The top hat hits the wall behind his head.

“ — don’t,” he finishes, too late, and then gets up to help Yun reassemble himself.

On Friday, Mercedes the soloist stands practicing beside the window inside the warehouse, every inch the hacienda lady with her lacy neckline stretched across her bare sternum, white gloves, and full breadth skirts held in place with hoops, which has been her only outfit for as long as Héctor’s known her. Skirts that touched her legs would be the height of indecency.

There’s nothing prim, however, about the way she drops her fiddle from her chin and pinches her fingers between her teeth, whistling loud and shrill.

“Ay, músicos! It’s him!”

Below, a whole entourage of people have arrived. One person’s job solely seems to be to mind the alebrijes: four little green chihuahuas, prancing underfoot. As they process towards the concert hall, De la Cruz is easy to spot; broad-shouldered, with a broad jaw and a broad hat, and a purple suit with modest gold trimming — practically casual, for him. Your eyes go to him, whether you mean to or not.

The first thing Héctor notices is that he still limps.

Mercedes sees it too, and sucks at her teeth. “What happened to him?”

“Fell down a mountain,” Héctor responds without thinking. “His horse landed on top of him. We were cooped up for weeks while the bone set.”

She cuts him a sidelong look.

She is el santo to the smell of coffee that permeates the streets of Pluma Hidalgo — its open-front cafes with the trim awnings, its little red clocktower — in southern Oaxaca, only miles from where the mudslides took out the road in 1917.

“He shouldn’t still be limping,” she says.

Héctor shrugs.

Bone damage sustained in life (i.e., not congenital) doesn’t follow you into death — which means the limp is something he puts on, like a hairpiece or a mustache, like a gender or a persona. An act. Purely for the benefit of the people looking.

That’s not my Ernesto, he thinks. That’s not anyone I’ve ever met.

Weirdly, it’s … almost a relief.

(If … if he scratches, there it will be, the question he doesn’t want answered: did you even think of Imelda and Coco at all?)

Yun materializes beside him, all his teeth on display.

“Let’s go, amigo!” he cries, and shoves Héctor’s guitar at his chest.

As always, his enthusiasm is catching, so in spite of himself, Héctor laughs and grabs their hats, and they pelt for the exit. Everyone else is lingering on the stairs, bottlenecking at the lift, but Héctor jerks his chin towards the window. They slide down the fire escape like boys half their age (or like boys exactly their age, depending on how you cut it,) and Héctor hits the ground first, adjusting his guitar strap before breaking for the concert hall.

And —

— a sudden terrific crack, like gunfire.

Héctor skids to a halt, looking back, and it takes a moment to make sense of what he’s seeing.

Yun, crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, violin lofted over his head the way people hold something precious out of range of rising floodwaters. He doesn’t seem to realize that’s what he’s doing: all his attention focuses forward, on his leg, the impossible angle it lays at.

The bone must have snapped clean through when he landed.

Like a matchstick.

They both stare at it, dull and horrified, and then Héctor jolts into movement.

He dashes back to Yun, dropping to his knees beside him. Yun jerks his head up, pupils gone swollen all the way around with fear. He grabs for him with his free hand, scrabbling at his cravat, and he’s shaking so hard Héctor can hear his ribs rattling.

“Don’t let them,” burbles out of him, jittery and panicked. “Don’t let them take me, Héctor, don’t let them. I’m not — ready, there’s nothing wrong, I’m not —“

“It’s okay, shhh, it’s okay,” Héctor tries to say, even though it obviously isn’t.

On impulse, he snatches the bow out of Yun’s hand and hunches his body over it, applying pressure with his bare ribs and kneecap until it snaps, the sound abrupt but muffled.

Just in time: curious heads start poking out the windows to investigate.

“What was that noise?” someone shouts.

“Ay yi yi, it’s Yun!” Héctor calls back, and holds up the pieces, still held together by the sad remains of the string. “Broke his violin bow, acting like it’s the end of the world!”

“It is!” wails Yun, who doesn’t have to fake his distress.

Thinking fast, Héctor reaches under his jacket and unhooks his suspenders, working a strap free from its brace — realizing too late it’s the one with the broken clasp. Doesn’t matter, he thinks, and grabs Yun’s leg, turning it towards him so he can shove the broken bone back into place. Yun sucks down air, eyes going pale and pained the whole time Héctor’s wrapping, until he’s got it stretched enough to hold together. At least for long enough. He’ll think of something else when they get back to the warehouse.

“Come on, amigo, up,” he says gently. “Put your weight on me.”

“Hurts,” Yun replies.

Héctor’s stomach swims. That was supposed to be the benefit of death, he’d thought — that you would finally be beyond pain.

“I’m sorry,” he murmurs, “that’s bad luck.”

Inside his apartment, he levers Yun down onto the bed and goes to close their instruments back up in their cases.

Morbidly, Yun pokes at the jagged break underneath the stretch of makeshift wrapping, and for the first time, Héctor stops and makes himself look — truly look. Underneath his dandy top hat, his neat tie and bigger smile, Yun’s bones are grey, like something left in the dark too long.

“I’ve been ignoring the signs,” he mumbles, clearly thinking along the same lines. “My bones are loosening up, Héctor. It’s getting harder to stay together.”

“I joked about it,” Héctor says miserably. “The other day, when that electric shock sent you everywhere.”

Yun stares: his fingers, the elastic strap, the break underneath. He looks hollow, shadowed.

“They’re going to come get me,” he says.

“No,” Héctor disagrees immediately. He hadn’t let them take his mother or the children, he’s not going to let them take Yun. “We’ll find something. Heckle the guys in construction for their glue — something. You already wear pants all the time, it won’t be hard to hide.”

Hurting a skeleton isn’t easy. Héctor once plummeted to the ground in a one-man aircraft and came out embarrassed but undamaged. That’s not the problem.

The more you are forgotten, the more brittle you become. When your bones break, there’s no blood, no marrow, nothing fleshy that encourages them to heal. He supposes marigold light might work, but if you aren’t remembered well enough to keep your bones from breaking in the first place, you won’t be remembered well enough to heal it.

That’s the sign for most people — that it’s time to move downriver, to join Los Olvidados, the nearly forgotten.

If you do not make the move willingly, it becomes an issue of public safety to move you.

Héctor kneels on the ground.

“Don’t let them take me,” Yun whispers, voice so thin it’s a desperate highwire, a colossal height and an awareness of a very long fall. “Please don’t let them take me, I don’t want to die down there.”

And a tender feeling bruises inside Héctor’s chest, a sudden overlay; it’s not Yun sitting on the edge of his bed, it’s Coco, pulling a face and saying, No, don’t want to go! When she was nineteen, had she been anything like Yun? Had she ever needed someone the way Yun does now? Had anyone been there for her?

Héctor sets his jaw. His gold tooth clicks against his bottom teeth.

“That’s not going to happen, amigo,” he tells him. “You’re not going anywhere.”

 

*

 

He forgets about Ernesto.

 

*

 

A decade after that, Frida Kahlo comes to live in the artist’s village, and the first thing Héctor notices about her is that she doesn’t limp at all. She was held together with metal most of her life, but in death, all of that’s gone. She smiles wherever she goes.

He doesn’t know what she sees in him, because she never tells him (well, maybe she does, and it’s possible he just doesn’t understand the metaphor? That conversation about performing monkeys had been rather pointed.) But she’s never mean to him. She stops to talk to him whenever he’s in the warehouse. He models costumes for her once, bemusedly letting her fit him in both dresses and suits — according to her, he’s the only one tall enough and thin enough to fit — but he’s not sure what the significance of all the silver-embroidered hammers and sickles are, crossed like coats of arms. She must really like tools.

“You have something on your mind, músico,” she says to him afterward, shoving hangers onto the discard rack. It’s not a question.

He hesitates.

“Your dancers, doña, the ones who wear your face … you have hired women and men.”

“I am both those things,” Frida Kahlo answers, without hesitation. “As are you.”

“I …”

She pauses. Her brow furrows, making her glued-on eyebrow buckle together at the center, and she looks at him shrewdly. “Am I wrong?”

I haven’t thought about it, he almost says, but that’s a lie.

Like she can tell that she has, in some way, given him permission to think about it, she lifts a hand. “This,” she thumbs at his goatee, “is just something you put on. It’s not permanent. Wear the skirts and change your name for a decade, see how you like it! Be neither, if that feels better. It’s your afterlife, Héctor.”

Of course, by this time, there isn’t a musician around who still takes Héctor seriously, so it matters, a lot, that Frida Kahlo can still find it in her to spare him her time, and her insight.

The chorizo story got out and compounded somehow, into this big thing, and Héctor …

Handled it poorly, shall we say.

He’s not proud of it, but he was under considerable stress at the time, thank you. It probably wasn’t surprising that he kept overreacting to all those stupid cracks about him choking. That became part of the joke, of course — ask him how he died, go on!

It’ll take another sixty years for the truth to occur to him:

That Ernesto spread the story.

It wouldn’t have been hard for his name to come to Ernesto’s attention: ask anyone in the artist’s village who you went to if you wanted a composition done, and you’d get Héctor’s name.

So Ernesto, already attuned to how a joke could ruin a man from a lifetime of hiding his preferences, turned around and used a joke to ruin him, before Héctor got a chance to ruin him first. And it took, because it was a point of pride for many of the musicians he knew, being in Ernesto’s good graces, and they repeated the chorizo story because Ernesto thought it was funny, and they thought it was harmless, and it was — except to Héctor.

Almost without him realizing it, he found himself living in an environment where nobody would believe him if he said, you murdered me.

No one would believe him if he said, you stole my songs.

Because he was just Chorizo, the joker.

 

*

Chapter Text

*

 

PART THREE: THE STATUE IN MARIACHI PLAZA

 

*

 

She pinches the tortilla between her fingers, picking at it a few times before getting a good enough grip and flipping it over, where it promptly begins to puff up. On the other side of the cooking stone, she sees Ernesto with his head bent over their map. Héctor points.

“No,” says Ernesto. “What can we possibly gain by going there?”

“They’d be our harshest critics,” Héctor says to him reasonably. “If we can win them over, Mexico City will be a breeze.”

“Well. You’re right about that.” His expression turns wheedling. “Do we have to, though?”

Amused, Imelda hikes up her skirts and scoots over to join them.

“Where is this?” she asks.

Héctor turns his body to include her, but keeps his eyes trained on Ernesto. “And,” he adds, nodding to her. “We know they know what to do with babies.”

“… do we have to?” Ernesto says again, plaintive.

Imelda leans over and picks the map out of his unresisting hands. She looks past the star-shaped hole in the center, where years of wear have broken through the parchment, trying to pinpoint the place where his finger had been. She follows the course of a river, the broken donkey path sidestepping the foothills, sees a trading outpost, but —

“There’s nothing here,” she says blankly.

Héctor’s on his feet, rescuing their dinner from the cooking stone and yipping as it burns his fingertips. He sucks on them, scowling, and when nobody offers him any sympathy, goes to check the pan for filling.

“Where are we going?” Imelda demands, raising her voice. There’s no civilization of any kind where they’d been pointing. “Amigos, hey! Where is this?”

 

*

 

“This” is Santa Cecilia.

And it is, in Imelda’s opinion, the kind of town that only cowboys and God would care about.

It has a single cobblestoned street leading through the center of town to the cathedral of the same name — smaller, newer than the cathedral in San Juan Albán, with arched doorways and red Spanish tile and a single rose window behind the altar. A statue of the patron saint herself stands under an arbor in the middle of the plaza, her eyes downcast and a lyre held against her ribs like she’s carrying tablets from Sinai. Whoever sculpted her clearly had no idea what the real Cecilia looked like — Imelda doesn’t think she could have been Mexican, but that’s how they’ve made her look: braided crown, hoops in her ears, steel-toed shoes for goring snakes peeking out under the hem of her skirts. At her feet, a collection of mariachi men drowse, hats pulled low to shade their faces, for all appearances part of the same statue.

Riding in, Imelda has no trouble realizing why this place wouldn’t be on a map. Dwellings make a ramshackle collection around the plaza; she can make out where the rich part of town turns into the poor part, so there must be some kind of economy that would make a divide between rich and poor, but otherwise, the only thing of interest about Santa Cecilia is the church.

This, of course, is where they head. Ernesto comes off his horse first, catching the mare’s bridle and then theirs in turn. His stiffness could be attributed to his knee, but Imelda’s willing to bet some of it’s reluctance, too.

Fame and fortune, this is not.

It’s the middle of the day, and the only ones out working are the insects — Imelda hears their industrial drone coming from the shaded stoops where they’re hidden — and the nun out sweeping the front steps, a heavy canvas apron pulled on over the front of her habit, a long set of keys clanking at the end of their tether. She looks up. The scratching of her broom pauses.

Then:

“Ernesto?” she asks, pulling at the brim of her wimple, showing watery, expressive eyes. “Ernestolito pequeño?”

Imelda throws a glance at the back of Ernesto’s head, amused. What?

“Hello, Reverend Mother,” he says, swiping his hat off his head and holding it to his chest as he comes to stand in front of her. He dwarfs her in size, a fact she takes in with rounded eyes.

Behind him, Héctor sing-songs, “It’s us! We’re back!”

Her eyes stick to Ernesto like they’re magnetized, but she flicks a glance in his direction — and then double-takes.

“Ay! Héctor, too?” she says, and her shock flips into sudden gladness. She barks a laugh so loud it makes the napping mariachi come to with a start, and Imelda stands back to let Héctor rush up the steps. She watches the Reverend Mother bully them both down to her height, embracing one, then the other, then returning to the first just as he thinks he’s escaped. They’re all laughing in spurts, talking over each other.

Imelda folds her arms around herself, looking up at the church with new recognition. This must be the orphanage where Ernesto and Héctor grew up. This is Santa Cecilia, their birthplace.

“When we sent you off with your letter of introduction, we should have known he would go after you!” It’s Ernesto she has in her grip now. “Never apart. Ay, ay, but did we worry! Why didn’t you send a letter?”

“We did!” Ernesto protests.

“Sorry, Madre Emmanuela, but you just would have betrayed us to the maestro! We couldn’t write you.”

“We did write you,” Ernesto steps heavily on Héctor’s foot.

“Ow! — okay you’re right, of course we wrote you,” Héctor acknowledges, and when the wobbling weight of Madre Emmanuela’s eyes falls to him, he offers her a sheepish grin.

“Never mind! Madre, please, I want you to meet my wife!”

Imelda finds herself suddenly dragged forward and presented much the same way something would be shaken under a dog’s nose to distract it.

“Imelda, this is Reverend Mother Emmanuela, she raised us. Madre, this is Imelda Consequela Rivera, my wife.”

Regaining her balance, Imelda curtsies. Madre Emmanuela ticks an eyebrow at her.

“Señora Héctor,” comes out of her, dry as bone. “You have my condolences.”

Ernesto and Imelda look at each other, then burst out laughing.

Héctor pulls a face.

 

*

 

The reason the town feels so empty, Imelda learns, is because they still haven’t recovered from the dysentery outbreak at the turn of the century. All because President Porfirio Díaz decided thirty-five years wasn’t long enough to be president and he couldn’t stand the idea of a rebel army stirring up opposition to him from his native state. When he was done with it, the cemetery was more populated than Santa Cecilia itself.

Héctor takes Imelda to meet his family — a single headstone with seven names on it, the last of which has the same date, 1907-1907. It’s not an inexpensive amount of carving.

“My father wanted them all accounted for,” he says by way of explanation.

They leave flowers for his mother, candy and simple three-note harmonicas they bought from a tinkerman for his brothers and sisters, and further up the hill, they find Ernesto standing in front of a slab of white stone, a visible eyesore laid like a carcass among all the other traditional family plots.

“What’s this supposed to be?” Imelda asks.

Héctor sucks at his teeth in answer, and Ernesto says, without inflection, “it was a donation. To honor the soldiers of Díaz’s republican army who died supporting his coup to overthrow Benito Juárez in,” he leans over, checks the date, “1871.”

Her eyebrows make a spirited leap up her forehead.

And they put that here? What a lack of tact!

“After a time, the nuns started using it as a catch-all for unknown deaths,” Héctor adds. “People with no families to claim them, rebels and orphans.”

“They deserve better,” Ernesto says, and Imelda darts him a look. It dawns on her that this is probably the closest he would ever come to a family plot of his own. He scuffs his boot against the base with idle contempt, then says to Héctor, “we’ll buy this someday and rip it out. Ship it up north or something. They can stick it in a museum.”

“All right,” Héctor agrees.

“We’ll put something else here. Something worth remembering.”

“All right,” says Héctor again, softer.

In Santa Cecilia, the water now comes from a groundwater preserve, untouched by the efforts of the porfiristas. Imelda watches as years of tension roll off Héctor’s back the first time they try the main pump in the plaza and the water comes gushing out, pure and clear.

Her men get pulled back into the workings of town almost effortlessly, like they never left, so they work during the day and bring Imelda to the plaza with them to perform at night. The music played there under the watchful eye of the patron saint carries like incense in church, saturating everything with its scent — the town is aptly named.

Héctor was right about the nuns being their toughest critics. The first time they come out to hear them play, it sparks a four-day scholarly dispute about whether or not it honors God to sing about the imperfections in another being as if they are to be glorified — one side says no, it’s not any better than those racy songs about sexual gratification, while the other says, yes, we are all made in the image of God, even and especially those of fractured minds, both sides deaf to Héctor insisting that “Un Poco Loco” was just a song about the funny things his wife tells him when she’s in a contrary mood. It wasn’t that deep!

“It’s out of your hands now,” Ernesto tells him, unsympathetic. “You’ve sung it; you lose all control over it after that point.”

“We’ll see if you’re so sanguine when it’s your songs being misconstrued!” Héctor snaps back.

In her office, Madre Emmanuela drags over a well-worn wicker chair and puts her hands to Imelda’s belly, feeling around. When she finds it round and tough as a nut, she agrees with Héctor and Ernesto that they can’t do this on their own. They need lodgings — they’ll stay here in Santa Cecilia until Imelda delivers.

She pushes her chair back, but Imelda stops her with a hand to her arm.

“Please, Reverend Mother,” she says in an undertone, tugging her blouse down and tucking it back through her belt. “Is there any way to know … ?”

“When you’re due?” Madre Emmanuela finishes kindly.

“When I conceived.”

This earns her a sharper, more scrutinizing look, which Imelda meets head-on. The kind of women who ask those questions are the kind of women who need a specific answer — which Imelda does, for the exact reason those women do.

“When was your last monthly?”

She’d had one after, and hasn’t had one since, but, “that’s not a good indicator — I bled regularly the whole time I carried the last one,” she says, and Madre Emmanuela’s attention sharpens even further. Her expression is stillwater clear, and Imelda can see straight through to the bottom, where she stops wondering if Imelda’s an adulterer and jumps to a different conclusion: an Imelda who carried a child but does not have a child in arms must have lost a child.

“Then the best I can do is guess for you, señora.”

That night, as Héctor pinches himself awake waiting for her to fall asleep first and she keeps failing to do so, she flips over and scoots closer, touching the knob of his spine where it peeks out from the collar of his shirt.

“What would you have done,” she asks, at his inquisitive noise. “If there’d been a different answer?”

“There would never be any way to know,” he points out quietly, not needing to ask what she’s talking about. “Not for certain. Mine, or his.”

“What if there was?” she presses.

He rolls over to face her. She makes out the gleam of his open eyes in the dark, searching her. His mouth quirks.

“Well,” he says. “I would hardly be the first man in Mexico to raise another man’s child.”

Héctor —“ Imelda starts, temper rising.

He moves first, pulling her into him and wrapping her up so that they’re tangled up completely, half-lying on top of each other, and gives her a reassuring squeeze.

“I would love you,” he murmurs into her ear. “No less. I would love,” he worms a hand between them, running the backs of his knuckles against her belly, “them no less. Imelda, I would love Ernesto’s children as I would love my own, as I would love anything you made. I would love his grandchildren, his great-great-grandchildren. Nothing will change that.”

She blinks fast against his shoulder.

“Okay,” she manages, feebly. And, “are you glad we know for certain, then?”

“I am,” he answers. “But we might not be so certain next time, and I wanted you to know it doesn’t matter to me.”

It’s this — this implication that of course there will be more children, that Ernesto will be such a regular fixture in their bed that Imelda could just as easily conceive from him as she could from Héctor — that has her inhaling, sudden, with a feeling all through her like an impact.

She hooks her heel around him and flips them over.

She still doesn’t get to sleep first, but that’s okay.

 

*

 

Madre Emmanuela comes back to them to suggest the old Luis place.

“Fell to the sons in the end,” she tells them as they lead the horses through the streets, moonflower vines starting to rot at the tops of the walls and arrow-blossomed bougainvillea crawling along the gates to stand guard. The buildings here are all the same style. “But they went to join the zapatistas, and we got their guns back shortly thereafter, so the place has been empty.”

A beat, then she adds pointedly, “They never sent letters either.”

Héctor’s eyebrows vault up, scandalized. “What!” he gasps, with his hand over his heart.

“They didn’t,” Ernesto plays along.

“What kind of lazy bums don’t even write their own Reverend Mother?”

Ernesto tsks. “That’s inexcusable.”

How Madre Emmanuela manages to sigh with every part of her body at once, Imelda will never know, but she can see her mouth twitching in spite of itself.

She takes them to a pueblo near the edge of town, standard for its type — house, stable, and shed all clustered around a well in the center. The wall around the property is intact; in some places in town, they’ve been removed or forcefully knocked down, leaving the residents to cultivate yucca and agave up as fences instead. There’s no need for that here.

They find broken-up cobbles in the courtyard and overgrown shrubs out front, giving it the shabby look places get when they’re unloved, but the roof is sound and there’s a cypress tree for shade, with its peeling naked trunk and trailing branches.

Standing in the kitchen, watching the dappling light change shapes on the floor, Imelda nudges Héctor with her elbow.

“That tree. Like the kind — “

“— in Santa María de Tule,” he finishes with her, nodding. He jimmies the window open and sticks his hand out so that the long strands of needles trail through his fingers. “The one by the church. But that one was so big it took thirty kids to get their arms around the trunk.”

“Well. Live long enough …” Imelda shrugs.

Ernesto, out inspecting the shed, suddenly flings his voice across the compound.

“Héctor!”

“Yeah?”

“What’s it sound like in the courtyard?”

Héctor glances at Imelda. The next second, she hears a bang as the shed door rebounds off its hinges and Madre Emmanuela’s exclamation, and then Héctor turns and bolts back through the house. She hears them collide in the courtyard, shouting to test the acoustics.

(Which are fine, but the best room in the house for that is the bathroom, where she’s surprised to find the most exquisite blue-patterned tile laid into the floor, each square painted a little different from the one next to it. In there, the sound reverberates like they’re in church; some of her earliest memories of this house will be the three of them singing together so late at night it’s practically morning again, Imelda sinking into the tub while Ernesto and Héctor elbow for space for their complicated facial grooming, lifting their voices to compliment hers. The sound soars off the tiles.)

While they run through their scales, Imelda stables the horses.

“I know, I know,” she says, when the pinto goes nosing around for feed and tosses her a dirty look. “We’ll get you some soon.”

She throws the bridle over its hook, turns and puts her hands on her hips.

“It’s not that bad,” she decides.

 

*

 

And though she doesn’t know it yet, she won’t leave again for fifty years.

 

*

 

“It’s not that bad,” Héctor says defensively.

His mother unpins her scarf from her hat, shaking out both and tossing them over the top of the coatrack.

“It’s a hovel,” she replies. “I’ve been there.”

“It doesn’t have to be, we could …” he starts, and knows at once that he’s overstepped.

“Ah, ah, ah!” A finger jabs itself at his nose. “That man went straight from his mother’s skirts to mine, expecting to be fed and cared for and coddled!”

She whirls around with another aggressive gesture, continuing to vent as he shuts the door behind them.

“— could belch all he liked about how Díaz betrayed the Oaxaca he was born to and how we had to smash it all if we wanted our rights, and then turn around to demand why I hadn’t washed his socks yet, like servitude was fine if it served him! His death was his opportunity to change that! Did he?”

“No, Mamá,” Héctor says meekly.

“No!” She scowls and picks the newspaper up off the tile.

His brothers come bounding back in, already having tossed their boots off and raided the pantry, and in unison, they crowd into Héctor’s space and hold up their brightly-wrapped candies, disguising the fact they haven’t actually asked permission to have them with their pleas for aid in unwrapping them.

Héctor crouches and picks the foil off the candies before their mother notices. His brothers shove them into their cheeks and scamper off.

When he looks up, she’s got her hands on her hips.

He smiles. Winningly.

A beat, and then she flips her hand at him, defeated.

“He is your father,” she allows. “Be whatever santo you feel called to be.”

He puts his hands on his shifting kneecaps and pushes himself upright, going over to kiss the exposed arch of her cheekbone.

“But remember,” she can’t help but add. “You’ve only been here for a few months, and that man has had decades to become entrenched in his way of living. I’m just worried you’ll be disappointed.”

“How can I be?” he says, and swings her around in a jaunty jig. “I’ve got you and los niños pequeños!”

As far as Héctor can tell, the main rule for new arrivals — especially ones like him, like his mother, like Yun, whose deaths categorically cross two spheres labelled Young and Sudden — is Don’t Leave Them Alone.

This isn’t hard. There are more men his age around than there are kernels on a corn cob, each with a different gruesome story about how they died for Villa and Zapata, for Carranza, for Benito Juárez himself, which Héctor found inspiring at first and then just found sad, after the fiftieth, sixtieth time someone said to him, “I gave my life for the cause, amigo!” without knowing that the cause didn’t seem to be overwhelmingly changed by the contribution. It seems to Héctor that the whole of Mexican history unfolds like this: these same young men, wearing different stripes.

Still, he picks a room in the Rivera house, he finds a guitar, he counts his blessings.

He spends hours every day with his siblings, each one with barely a year between them except for the gap where he had been, where he’d gone on to outlive them. Each of them is a permanent snapshot of the same developmental stages Coco went through: the squirming infant, the toddler vocal and belligerent, the four-year-old speaking in simple sentences and enjoying it much more when put to a song — plus a few stages Héctor was never going to see. He had an idea, now, of what Coco would be like at six, at nine.

“Wear them?” he checks.

Don’t wear them!”

“Oh, okay. Wear them?”

“No! I said don’t wear them!”

“Oh, okay. I’ll wear them.”

Driven to aggravation, his brother shouts “doooooooooon’t” at the top of his lungs from across the room, as if volume and emphasis facilitate understanding. His other brothers fall apart laughing on the rug. Héctor, grinning toothily from the floor, is now wearing not one, not two, but three pairs of shoes — one on his feet, one on his hands, and one very precariously balanced on his hairpiece. His sister peeks over the top of her book, and he waggles his shoe-hands at her. She rolls her eyes.

Pepé, too, is a regular fixture, the kind of person who makes friends the way some people make brute force impacts.

“Are you like this with everyone?” Héctor asks, the next he looks up and finds he’s been somehow coaxed into attending a horse race.

It’s a fine day, with clear skies, cheerful crowds, and hawkers going up and down the stands, belting out their prices on snacks and telescoping extenders you could swap for your glass eyeballs to see the track better. Below, the skeletal horses are made distinguishable from one another only by their multi-colored chest guards.

To Héctor, while he’d been alive, horse races had seemed like the epitome of wastefulness, one more incomprehensible thing rich people did — not so much the races themselves, but the idea of raising a horse specifically for that purpose. Do you know how many peoples’ lives could have been changed if they had access to a horse? And yet, whole stables were kept just for horses that could … run really fast?

He wonders what Imelda would think of this.

And then immediately feels tender about it, like he’d knocked a bruise.

Pepé hands him a corn cob.

“Just the Young, Sudden deaths,” he answers. “We’ve found that the more regularly monitored you are — the more you understand that you have a support network — the less likely you are to do something stupid.”

“Like?”

“Jump off the top of the nearest skyscraper,” Pepe says casually. “Walk out your front door and try to kill the first person you see.”

“People do that?” Héctor blinks. “What does that accomplish? We’re dead.”

“And maybe that’s why they do it — just to see what happens. To test the laws of the new world. Oh, it’s still unpleasant,” Pepé rolls his eyes. “But you won’t believe how often it’s attempted.”

Then he adds, quick enough that Héctor thinks he might be trying to change the subject, “And then there are the people who died too suddenly, who just refuse to accept that they’ve died. They’re the ones who try to get back to the Land of the Living.”

So … can you kill another skeleton?

Maybe not in a Final Death kind of way, because only the living could do that, but you could make them wish they were dead. Héctor fans his finger bones out, inspecting them — even taking one of these, lopping it off, and locking it in a drawer separate from the rest of his bones would cause him continual, low-key pain. That might drive a man loco.

Pepé’s words sink in.

He hikes his eyebrows. “Is that possible?”

No,” says Pepé emphatically. “So don’t even try.”

“Okay,” says Héctor.

A beat, and Pepé eyes him sidelong, watching him twirl the corn cob.

“That’s it?” he checks.

Héctor offers it to him. “Do you want it? I don’t have much of an appetite, gracias.”

“No — you wouldn’t,” Pepé’s willing to be distracted. “You’re dead. We’re not bothered by hunger anymore. We just eat for fun and community, and …”

Héctor sees the exact moment it clicks.

“… and you died by food poisoning.”

“Yeah,” says Héctor, and extends the elote to him again. “But thank you, amigo, you didn’t have to get it for me. Also, sneaking back into the Land of the Living? Sounds like too much work. I’m not interested.”

Héctor.”

“What?” He widens his eyes innocently. “First of all, everyone I know is going to come to me if I wait long enough. Second, you can’t promise me that I’m not going to pop back in looking like this — “

He gestures to himself, up and down.

“— and please understand that I was quite the looker when I was alive, so there’s no telling what the reaction would be to me now.”

He waggles his eyebrows, and Pepé snorts, crunching at the second elote.

“I’ve seen your headshot, chico,” he says with a shake of his head, “and that’s a face only a mother could love.”

“Fortunately —“ Héctor begins.

And Pepé says, “I know, I know, I know, I know she loves you,” and they smile.

He finishes off the second elote, Héctor takes the sticks from him to the nearest receptacle to be considerate, and they watch the jockeys below coax their mounts into the starting pens. The band’s setting up in the center ring, where a man in a tall feathered headdress is sorting out ribbons.

“Are you looking forward to seeing your living relatives on Día de los Muertos?” Pepé nudges him.

Inside the empty cavity of Héctor’s chest, his heart gives a sudden leap, wrings itself out, then hangs itself up to dry.

“I have to apologize to her,” he whispers.

“Eh?”

“My daughter. I have to tell her how sorry I am. She’ll know it’s me, right?”

“Sorry for … for dying? You had no control over that! It’s not the most embarrassing death, Héctor, trust me —“

“What? No, I don’t care about that. Don’t — !” He jerks back from Pepé’s extended hand. “I left them,” his voice goes high, sharp enough that several of the conversations around them falter. He clenches his fists, waits until they resume again, then says in a fierce, low voice, “I walked out. I left them. My wife, my child. I knew it was a mistake even before I died, but —“

He pinwheels a hand, helplessly.

“But what does that matter? I still left! That’s what I have to apologize for! That arrogance! How — how self-centered do you have to be to think that your child doesn’t deserve every moment, every second of your time! You don’t know what’s going to —“

“Héctor!”

“— happen! You don’t know when you’re going to eat bad food and die!”

Héctor!”

“What!” Héctor shouts back, furious.

Hands land on his shoulders, squeezing tight enough that Héctor can hear the grind of his own bones.

“Ay, amigo,” Pepé says softly. “That’s rough.”

A crack of a shot, the rattle of the gates. Shouts go up all around them as the crowd surges to its feet, leaving Héctor and Pepé where they are.

But the moment’s passed. With effort, Héctor pulls himself together.

“Until then,” he says, slowly. “What’s the rule? Something, something, my responsibility to do no harm, and to contribute the best of who I am to this world. We are all el santo to something, right?”

Pepé gives him another squeeze, then releases him. “See? What do you even need me for?”

 

*

 

As the Land of the Living feeds the Land of the Dead, so too do the dead feed the living.

All inspiration, all dreams, all creative bursts of passion that make the living world so spectacular come from the hard work of the dead, who are the roots planted into the underside of the world.

Each new face becomes el santo to something upon arrival — but it’s not always immediately obvious what that something is. It’s not like those logbooks and later the boxes with the glowing screens that keep track of who is on whose ofrenda. There’s nothing that can just show you what you’re el santo to, you have to feel it for yourself.

It can be very specific — Héctor oversaw the music selection for an activist’s debut ball, and she’s el santo to three particular tortilla-making machines in a factory in Monterrey. It can be general — he’ll share a taxi one day with an arrival from the fifteenth century, a bright-eyed Zapotec cacique who is el santo to the month of July in Oaxaca City. No particular place or event. Just the whole month.

To be el santo to something is to be a direct conduit to it. Your actions in death generate a certain kind of power, which in turn affects the living people who experience it.

Live honestly, and well, and an employee in a tortilla factory stops and appreciates how they’ve never had a problem with these machines, how nice it is that women don’t have to waste half their day over their metates anymore for the sake of a tortilla — isn’t that lucky?

Live selfishly, recklessly, with no regard to your fellow dead, and it’s a miserable July for Oaxaca City.

That’s why there’s so much art, so much color, so much making and giving, so much life in the Land of the Dead. Everyone wants to make the living world better for the people they left behind.

The sense of responsibility is staggering. It’s what keeps this society, this big, rambling, chaotic city running:

Solidarity at the heart of every Mexican.

“What about you?” says the activist, the cacique, says Pepé and Yun.

Absently, Héctor touches his tattoos, the rising feathered design. He answers, “Dunno, but I’ll find out, I suppose!” and smiles with all his teeth.

 

*

 

Somewhere deep down, Héctor had hoped that being able to greet his father as a father himself would make him seem so much less colossal, much less disappointing.

And it does.

Much the same way stepping on one lets you see that a balloon is just a scrap of rubber, distended by hot air.

His father Rivera lives in a one-room shed that been tacked onto the side of another building like a hat on a hook, haphazardly suspended out over open air. Its single window faces the setting sun, illuminating the baleful coal-eyed lump that fixes on him as soon as he comes through the door.

“You again,” it says.

“Me again!” Héctor whistles as he hangs his hat up and crosses to the bedside table. “Let’s light a lamp, shall we — I see we’re wallowing today, being the best we can be, but we don’t have to do it in the dark.”

Rivera issues a toad-like croak, and nothing else.

Héctor straightens and shakes out the match. “Did I tell you? I saw electric lights in the lobby the last time I had to take forms up to Afterlife Affairs! I mean, it’s more common in the Land of the Living, but from what I understand, we’re at least ten years behind them, aren’t we?”

“Eh,” is the response, and the thin ferrety face sticks out its jaw.

Héctor sits down on the edge of the blanket, unperturbed. All his conversations with his father had gone like this, too, when he was young. Rivera had spent his life doing the bare minimum of work and arrived in the Land of the Dead feeling betrayed that the work just continued. All Héctor wanted was to do better for his daughter than Rivera had done for him; a memory of all those empty shoes lined up in a row.

He does most of the talking during these visits, and his father draws on one of his three stock responses:

“I don’t want to,” and, “she doesn’t want to see me,” which is true, bringing up Mamá had been a long shot, and, “oh, there you go, making it all about you again.”

“Okay!” Héctor says, brightly, once that one makes its appearance. “I’ve got to go now.”

His father’s head pops up, like a rat’s out of a hole, to deliver a parting shot:

“Go ahead and do that, then! Don’t know why you bother — couldn’t wait to leave me when we were alive, either, could you?”

I was eight! Héctor wants to protest.

“Adios, Papá.”

“Go on! I’ll see you next time you need to make yourself feel better.”

The door sticks, so he puts his shoulder into it and hauls it shut. It always slams, which wasn’t intentional.

The landlord’s alebrije flicks its tongue at him.

“You’re telling me,” Héctor complains, and leaves.

 

*

 

So, really, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when one of Héctor’s lows, the miserable tectonic weight of his grief, comes quaking up against his father’s one day late in October.

“You know what I keep thinking?” grumbles the lump, white clawed fingers clutching the blanket up to its chin.

Héctor tests the side of the kettle — which is useless, of course, as he has no flesh to register temperature with, but habit is habit — and pours a cup. Earlier that morning, his brothers had gleefully shown him how they could make food disappear and reappear, swallowing handfuls and then pulling them back up out of their seemingly-empty chest cavities, and Héctor had cried, ughh! That’s disgusting! and, do it again.

He’s wondering if you could do that with liquids. What would that look like?

“What do you keep thinking?” he asks distractedly.

“That you should have died too,” Rivera tells him, and Héctor sets the kettle down with a clang.

“We would have all been together, then,” his father chews on this, grinds it down like gristle. “But instead there you were, too dumb to die, always glaring at me. Took off as soon as I turned my back, tried to pretend we never happened! Ay, it would have been better to have a clean break.”

The strings holding Héctor together snap.

“I’m sorry!” bursts out of him. He’s on his feet suddenly, kettle swinging. “I’m sorry that I didn’t die with the rest of them!”

He feels hijacked, flung from the top of somewhere high up, his bones trying to pull him in one direction and his heart convinced that it has to go the other.

Bitterly, he continues, “I’m sorry I wasn’t Mamá. I’m sorry I wasn’t one of the girls, or someone you could have loved easier. I’m sorry we had to bury them before we could ever meet them.” His father holds perfectly still, eyes glittering in his direction. “But did it occur to you that I lost them too? That I needed you?”

“But you didn’t, did you!” Rivera barks. “Ran away as soon as you could, and fat lot of good it did you! Look at you — penniless musician, dead as a doornail, and what did you ever amount to?”

Everything!” Héctor bellows. “Everything! You have no idea what I managed to accomplish — me, ugly, scrawny, uninspiring me!”

Who else could have taught Ernesto the skills he’d need to be somebody, to change his fate? Who else could have been the exact right person Imelda needed to realize she didn’t want to be what los Consequela had already decided she was going to be?

They are the people they are — beloved, lovely — because of him.

He made people laugh, he made people sing, he encouraged and commiserated and consoled, and he made Coco light up when she saw it was him.

That’s not nothing!

And his miserable old father can’t diminish that, no matter how hard he tries.

“And I hope,” Héctor Rivera manages, quieter now. “That someone, somewhere finds a use for you, so you can finally do some good.”

 

*

 

Later, when he’s out on the balcony with no company except for his family’s woebegone plants left to fend for themselves, the door behind him creaks.

“Héctor?” his mother’s voice ventures.

“Mamá.”

The balcony overlooks the bridge connecting their residential skyscraper to the next, and it’s always busy with carts and foot traffic. In the Land of the Living, perhaps, there would be children out racing their bicycles or daring each other to throw rocks at the alebrije flying below, but in the Land of the Dead, the elderly are much more numerous and they’re out in force today — also on their bicycles and — is that a unicycle?

Héctor opens his mouth. “What’s wrong with me — how come I can’t love him enough?”

“Oh, Héctor,” his mother sighs.

“How come when I reach for it, all I get is the end of my patience? Where did it go? How —”

He stumbles to a halt, and buries his face in his knees. It’s only a moment, and then his mother’s skirts brush up against his elbow. He cants sideways, leaning into her.

“In my experience,” she says to the top of his head, “love between parents and children only goes one way, mijo, and that’s forward.”

When he looks up, she hands him his youngest brother, who rolls his head sleepily against Héctor’s front, sees that it’s him, and goes back to suckling the end of his bony thumb with a contented noise. Héctor gathers him close, pressing his cheek to his head.

“I couldn’t know what it was that made my mother my mother until I was a mother myself,” Mamá Rivera continues. “And I think that’s true for everyone. We don’t know what it takes until we have our own children — or something similar, anyway, parenthood isn’t for everyone. We can’t love our parents until we see how they made us —“ she rests her hand on his shoulder, “and how they failed us.”

Héctor lets out a slow, shaky exhale.

He rocks his younger brother, and the phantom memory of Coco heavy in his arms threatens to bend his bones to the breaking point.

Trying to hold onto that love is like trying to hold rushing water in a teacup — the arc of it spilling right back out with force, like the white-water rush of the rivers crashing down through San Juan Albán and the engineer who wanted to be paid to sluice it, like that was ever going to happen, like you can look at something like that and not know at once that it can never be cut or controlled.

And he likes it, the idea of that love as a resource that Coco could draw on instantaneously, confident it wouldn’t run dry because it had all the strength of the generations before her. If only he could tell her.

Does she know? Does she know that he loves her — through all the ages that were, and the ones yet to come?

“How long until Día de Muertos, Mamá?” he asks, homesickness for his daughter yawning in him like a grave.

“Five days,” his mother says, like a promise.

 

*

 

As the sun sets, five days later, he dresses in his best and when his family comes in, they clamber over him to kiss him good-bye.

“But —“ Héctor says, flummoxed. “But you’re coming with me!”

His mother pats his cheek. “Yours was the only ofrenda we were on, Héctor,” she says. “And now that you’re here, there’s no one there. We won’t be able to cross the bridge.”

He looks at her, horrified, but she just laughs.

“It’s not that bad!” she reassures him. “It’ll be a relief, I think. You don’t know what a hassle it is trying to travel with six little kids!”

His sister has a different concern.

“What are you going to bring us?” she demands, hooking her hands around his forearm and dragging it down until she’s swinging from it. “Hmm? What are you going to bring us?”

“Chocolate!” begs his brothers.

“Candy! Dice! Little harmonicas!” They all pile on, chorusing, “Oh, please, Héctor, please.”

In spite of himself, he laughs and hefts them up to kiss them one-by-one and says, “I’ll see what I can do.”

He was worried he might get lost, since there’d been no instruction on where he was supposed to go — is it just one bridge, or multiple bridges? If there are multiple bridges, do they go to different locations? If he crossed a bridge that wasn’t specifically for the central valleys of Oaxaca, would he come out somewhere else entirely?

But it turns out to be easy; he just has to go the same direction everyone else is going.

The whole way down, he keeps tugging on his cravat, his sleeves, smoothing down the embroidery at his throat, until he looks up and meets an old woman’s sympathetic eyes across the aisle.

“First time home?” she guesses.

Her skirts take up two seats by themselves, printed with the enormous rosettes-on-black that’s emblematic of Oaxacan festival wear, crimped at the hems and paired with a matching ornate headdress that Héctor, in life, only got to see in newspapers. The Land of the Dead has it in abundance — more beauty and vitality than he knows what to do with.

“Yes,” he admits, breathless, and tries not to let his imagination carry him away.

Imelda would put out his family’s pictures, surely, she wouldn’t keep them off the ofrenda just because Héctor wasn’t there to make sure they were there. He’ll check, but he knows his wife better than that — next year they’ll all come together, him and his mother and his siblings.

Would Ernesto be there?

Maybe not, if he’s busy or too far away, but … he’d make an effort for this, right? The first Day of the Dead after Héctor died? He knew how important the holiday was to him.

In those days, before the uniformed employees from the Bridge Authority checked peoples’ names off their logbooks like a wedding registry, and long before those blasted, twice-cursed facial scanners, the marigold bridges at Héctor’s crossing were guarded by fearsome statues: warriors of the pipiltin so known for their dogged devotion to the Azteca that they were invited into legend.

They stand with scroll in one hand, spear in the other, their necks adorned in turquoise, in gold. Xolo dogs lay curled watchfully at their feet. To Héctor, their eyes seem terrifically bright, like a jaguar’s.

The jackrabbiting in his brain goes quiet as he steps into line.

It leaves nothing in its wake, no sound, no room for anything except the bounding, leaping, throbbing of his heart. Soon, soon, he would get to see Imelda, he would get to see Coco, he would get to see what they’d done to make up for his absence. How they missed him. How Imelda and Ernesto learned to collaborate without him, how they’d grown, what they were doing to live their very best lives the way he was trying to live his very best death.

And then —

HALT,” boom the voices of the guardians.

Héctor, and everyone around him in line, jolt to a stop. A spear-tip parts the crowd, pointing —

Pointing right at him.

Héctor says, “What?”

And, “No.”

And, “What did I do?”

And something, somewhere inside of him starts cracking, and the wind going through it becomes a whistle becomes a howl, and it does not stop, not for ninety-six years.

 

*

 

The news arrives with Monday’s post, and takes exactly five minutes to spread from one end of Santa Cecilia to the other: the mariachi man from Jalisco is coming to the south of Mexico. He’ll be performing in the city at the end of the week.

It’s the only thing Héctor and Ernesto want to talk about.

They’re going, of course. They have to meet him, hear him. He played for President Díaz, he made the First Lady weep, he is the sound of Mexico’s true beating heart, his records practically sell themselves, he’ll never be as close as he is right now — possibly sleeping under the same moon! Breathing the same air!

The chance to learn from him would be — !

How am I supposed to travel?” Imelda demands, raising her voice to be heard above their excited chatter.

She stands at the stall door as they remove the tack from Ernesto’s mare, her hands planted in the vicinity of where her hips had been, where someday she hopes to find them again.

In what seems like an alarmingly short amount of time, she’s gone from noticeably rounded to uncomfortably so, and what had been charming, surprising little kicks now sends her lurching like she’s got something seafaring inside of her. Her men have come across her more than once, listing to one side and holding on to something for balance, like trying to carry a crate when the weight’s been distributed unevenly.

Ahoy there! Ernesto’s taken to calling, in what she assumes he thinks is a sailor’s voice. The sea serpent a-moving?

This “with” part of being with child is … not pleasant, she’s decided.

“We’re not asking you to!” Héctor says quickly.

Her nostrils flare. “Well, you’re not leaving me behind. I’m a mariachi too. I have every right to be there!”

He grimaces. “I know that, but …”

“What if we brought you a record?” says Ernesto suddenly. “It’ll be like being there, but without the crowd to make you sweat.”

Héctor glances at him sidelong, brow furrowing. “Do we know anyone with a phonograph?”

“If we play it up —“ and playing things up is, of course, Héctor and Ernesto’s greatest strength, “— we could persuade Señor Garciarona to buy one, you know he loves to be the first to have everything. Then Imelda can hear him!”

He squeezes past her, grabbing her hands and swinging them, boyishly oblivious to her temper.

“We’ll be back before you miss us,” he promises.

He disappears into the house before she can muster up the energy to sneer back at him. Did he have to sound so jubilant at the prospect of leaving her behind? That wasn’t just her imagination, was it? Everyone tells her that carrying a child makes her moods irrational, but in Imelda’s experience people only call you irrational when you’re being perfectly rational, just inconvenient.

“This is bad timing,” she says to Héctor.

He beats out the hard-bristled brushes against each other, and frowns at her over the cloud of dust.

“Do the nuns think you’re due before we’d get there and back?” he asks.

“Their estimation is ‘when God wills it’,” Imelda answers, tossing her head dismissively to show what she thinks of that, and it brings Ernesto’s mare over to snuffle at her curiously, one ear still pricked in the direction of Héctor and the brushes. Imelda gives her a scratch around her shoulders, where the saddle makes her itch, and fights to steady her breathing. “But it sounds like you’ve already decided and I can’t very well go with you. Now move, I have to pee.”

She doesn’t, but it’s a reliable way to get them to leave her alone so she can wad up and chew on her frustration in peace, but it’s a tough and leathery thing, and she’s sick of the taste. The aquatic monster makes another uncomfortable shift inside her, and it makes the blue tile swim. Imelda exclaims in disgust and dashes the tears from her eyes.

When she makes it back to their bedroom, Héctor’s outfits are missing from the closet; the charro jacket and his second-best in the burgundy suede. She sits at the end of their bed, running her hands over their ratty old quilt with its campfire stains, and when Héctor comes in, he knocks first.

“Don’t talk to me,” she warns him. “I’m angry, and not in a pretty way. I’d fight you over the color of the sky right now.”

But Imelda has always fought Héctor Rivera on the color of the sky, told him to put his shoes on his head and his hat under his bottom, just to be contrary. It doesn’t deter him.

He kneels in front of her, folding his hands over her knees.

Softly, he pleads, “I will not leave you with you resenting me, Imelda, mi amor.”

“It’s not you I resent.”

He meets her gaze. His eyes shutter, but it’s too late, Imelda’s found what she wants to be angry about.

“He’s bored with this, Héctor,” she tells him, gesturing at their surroundings, their little room with the flower wreath and the drawings on the mantle over the grate, the ones Héctor will take to the ofrenda since no photographs of his family exist. “It’s like his broken leg, but worse. He’ll want you back soon, and he’s going to drive a wedge between us to make that happen.”

The faster she talks, the more he just shakes his head.

“Ernesto is not your enemy, Imelda,” he says patiently.

“Oh, no, he never means to be,” she fires back, and switches tracks. “Where’s my wrap? The one with the purple embroidery, for church?”

“I — “

Nonplussed by the seeming non-sequitur, he frowns at her. “You’re right, I haven’t seen it in awhile. Where is it?”

“That catty snot of a Garciarona girl snatched it from my head and threw it down just as the meatcutter’s cart backed up over it. Ruined it.”

His frown deepens. “Why would she do that?”

She bares her teeth, but he’s already answering his own question.

“Is she one of those people who has something against highlanders?” He’s well and truly scowling now. “Or blacks?”

Imelda spits. “It’s because I am the fastest route to Ernesto, so she wants to cozy up to me until I tell her I can’t help her, and then it’s as if I’m somehow competition for him. That’s what I have to live with.” She’d tolerated it before, barely, those people who thought her sin was adultery. She’s put up with enough. Ernesto gets to be unmarried, exceedingly handsome, and — most importantly — a Santa Cecilia boy. The women haven’t been subtle in their pursuit.

Worse, Ernesto hasn’t been careful.

“He likes his games,” she presses, while Héctor stares at her with an alien look. “For what?”

“He’s my family, Imelda. We raised each other.”

He’s still being patient. Like — like she’s the one with the broken leg, cooped up and crabby enough to pick fights.

It makes Imelda itch. There’s no point in being this worked up if she’s the only one who’s angry.

The way they talk about her, Señorita Garciarona and the others, it’s as if having an unmarried man living under her roof corrupts her by default. Like there aren’t mornings where Imelda wakes up and has to go into Ernesto’s room to get her husband out of bed. If they want their competition, they’re pointing the finger in the wrong direction.

She hears the strain of this in her voice, plunging onward.

“And maybe that’s why you can’t see it, but he’s ready to discard this. He’ll expect you to follow him faithfully, but he won’t offer you the same courtesy. Where is he right now?”

He hadn’t been in the kitchen. He hadn’t been in his room, because Imelda stopped there first.

Their eyes lock.

“Héctor,” Imelda says, feeling low and poisonous. “Does he come to bed smelling like anyone else?”

After a very charged moment, he speaks.

“I think,” he’s using the most deliberate, mild voice he has — not the one she’s used to, the playful, cajoling Héctor who can sell rocks in a desert and convince the Mother Superior that she’s an alebrije, but the voice he uses when someone’s got their bare foot above a snake. Fangs bared, death imminent. Unless they’re all very, very careful.

“I think,” he says again, “you are confusing what he play acts with what he truly is.”

Imelda gives him a reptilian look.

“What does that mean?”

“He is not the mariachi man you were warned about. He acts like it because he thinks he should be. But it’s not his nature to chase skirts.”

“You’re right,” Imelda says coldly. “He wouldn’t like the challenge. He only cares for partners,” she leans in, “who don’t put up a fight.”

He gives her a hateful look, and it cuts into her sudden and shockingly deep. She can’t snatch herself back from it in time. She feels it hook inside of her, horribly, because being that cruel to someone always hurts you as much as it hurts them.

He jerks upright and turns his back on her, crossing to the other side of the room.

Imelda continues to glare after him for one moment, then another, and then it all caves in. Regret mashes her insides up. What was the point in stirring all that up, other than to make him as miserable as she is? What did she think she was going to win here?

She opens her mouth, wanting to apologize, but Héctor’s already miles away.

“Do you think I’m being greedy?” he asks her, directed down at his feet. He keeps his voice low, kicked down where the flooring doesn’t quite meet the baseboard. “For, for — being who I am? Wanting to keep you both?”

Imelda has several answers to that, but almost immediately discards them all.

There’s only one real answer anyway.

With difficulty, she hauls herself back to her feet and crosses the floor to join him. The tension in his shoulders snaps as soon as she places her hand on his back, and he half-sags, half-leans into her.

“Imelda,” he murmurs, with audible relief.

She wraps her arms around him, pressing her forehead against the wing of his shoulder and squeezing her eyes shut.

“I think … I think you have to be twice as responsible,” she tells him, turning her nose into the familiar, worn fabric of his shirt. “To have two people who love you as much as we do. That’s twice as much influence as most people get to have.”

She pauses, collecting her thoughts.

Right here, it’s as if the world doesn’t extend past this; Héctor’s scent in her nose, his heart a steady beating under her hands.

“You’re not … I wouldn’t call you a careful person, but with this? Héctor — with him and I, you’ve never been anything but careful. And that’s why I trust you. Got it?”

“Yes,” says Héctor, and turns in her arms to embrace her fully. “And I’m sorry. I didn’t know that, about the women.”

“Just … come back, so I don’t have to be alone with them.”

 

*

 

The next morning, as they saddle up their horses, Imelda’s mare pops her head over her stall door and nickers delightedly, glancing back and forth between her saddle and Imelda in clear anticipation.

She pats her neck in apology, saying, “maybe next time,” and when Ernesto comes in, she calls, “wait.”

Distractedly, he glances her way. “Huh?”

“Ernesto.”

“Sí … ?”

He gets a lot less distracted when she comes right into his space and puts her hands on either side of his face. This worked as a wake-up call last time, maybe it’ll work this time, too.

“Ernestolito pequeño,” she says, just to tease, and when he scowls and starts, “that’s not funny, Imelda,” she bends her neck and muffles his annoyance with her mouth.

Startled, he sticks a hand out behind him for balance.

“Wha — ?”

They’re not far from the road, anyone could duck into the stables with a last-minute request and catch Héctor Rivera’s wife kissing his best friend, but no one, she thinks, knows this risk better than Ernesto, who’s always had to kiss Héctor with one wary eye open, and it makes her ache for them, all at once, like she had burnt something up with her outburst the night before and this was taking root in its place. The sincerity of her own feeling surprises her.

A moment later, Héctor’s there, with a hand to her waist (how can he find it? She certainly can’t!) He presses his forehead to the crown of her head, a wordless thank you.

Against her front, Ernesto relaxes.

When he tips his head, kissing her back, it’s tentative, and Imelda realizes all at once that what Héctor said was true: wooing women might be part of the stage for Ernesto, and fulfilling when he gets his lines right, but it’s still a stage he walks off of at the end of the night.

Is it possible, she wonders, that she’s still the only woman who’s ever had Ernesto de la Cruz in her bed?

They part, and Héctor leans in over her shoulder to kiss Ernesto, too, so close to Imelda’s face that she sees double. She eases her bulk backward, resting against Héctor’s chest.

This time, when Ernesto looks at them, his brow’s furrowed, like he’s waiting for the punchline — and what an act of violence a cruel joke can be.

Work with us, Imelda wills him. Please.

Slowly, the look softens.

“We’ll be back, Imelda,” he promises her, low, and puts both his hands to the high arch of her stomach. “You, too,” he says to it, and Imelda closes her eyes, trying to postpone the moment where they both step back from her for as long as she can.

 

*

 

It’s the first time in her life she’s been alone.

Truly, completely alone, and she feels like this is something that should have occurred to her sooner, that she’d gone from her uncle’s household straight to her and Héctor and Ernesto all living out of each other’s pockets, and that it was going to be strange, having a whole house to run by herself, for weeks.

The solitude is nice at first, she supposes, as there’s no one around to make fun of her for belching out loud, or having her meals whenever she feels like it. But her bed is cold, her kitchen is cold, the nights are cold, with only her solitary body trying to do the work of several to warm up the space.

“If I put a hat on you and call you auntie just for someone to talk to, do you think they’ll talk to Madre Emmanuela about me?” she asks the pinto.

With a flick of her ears, her mare lips at the palm of her hand in a nice, nonjudgmental way.

Imelda sighs.

“Thank you, that’s kind of you to say,” she says.

Héctor and Ernesto haven’t even been gone a week when Imelda ends up in the courtyard with one of the younger nuns whose name she can’t remember and is too embarrassed to ask for again. She’d only stopped by to ask Imelda about her swelling, just a few follow-up questions, nothing concerning, señora, only she’d been looking through the medical textbooks — but for all her professional curiosity, she came through the gate just as the wind tore the clothesline from its post, and the greetings had gotten lost in a laughing pursuit for her fleeing laundry. To her embarrassment, Imelda hadn’t been much help.

She apologizes breathlessly. “I could focus better if the little sea serpent wasn’t pitching all the time.”

The nun shakes a shift out, folds it over her arm, and turns to her with her eyebrow raised. There’s still a smile lingering around her mouth as she says, “They flip and flop, but they don’t usually somersault.” A beat. “May I see?”

Imelda waves her on. “Go right ahead.”

(You’d think nuns would be nuns, but it turns out that every religious order is different, with different commitments. The nuns here aren’t the ones Imelda’s familiar with from San Juan Albán — this order is older, well-established, and not shy about going places they wouldn’t be welcome, otherwise. Imelda trusts their training more than she would any doctor’s — the only doctors she knows are men, and what would they know about a woman’s health?)

She props herself against the edge of the well and tries not to grimace when the nun’s cold hands push down on her belly, then up again, feeling around with clinical surety.

“Hm,” she says, and blinks. “That’s interesting. Baby’s gone and turned over completely, and settled here,” she puts pressure on a point low between Imelda’s hips. “Generally, babies only do that when they’re ready to be born.”

Imelda frowns.

“I don’t think you’ve got long now, señora,” the nun says to her.

“Well, that’s too bad,” Imelda answers matter-of-factly, and takes her shift back, turning around. “It’s not happening now.”

And with that new worry on her mind, she works hard to keep herself busy over the next several days, drinks her cocoa in the morning and tells her stomach, “be quiet, be a good sea serpent, stay where you are.” The broken stones in the courtyard have started to become a nuisance, so Imelda takes a bucket and makes a project out of it, prying up the chipped pieces. In no time, her courtyard looks punch-drunk, its teeth knocked out, but it keeps her mind off the twinges inside her body.

And then, one morning while she’s in the cellar, she finds a hole chewed through the bottom of their bagged sugar.

“Hm,” she says to nobody in particular. “We’ve got a rat.”

As if in answer, a terrific clenching seizes her stomach.

She cries out, shocked at the intensity of it. Bracing herself against the shelving, she puts a hand under her belly and does it again, louder.

Oh, no. This can’t be right.

This is what happened last time. The pain is exactly the same.

“No, no,” she gasps, and casts a desperate look around: the cellar is dark, cool, and above it the pueblo is completely abandoned.

There is no one around — no family, no neighbors. She is alone.

“Por favor, no.”

The pain recedes for awhile, giving her the strength to climb up out of the cellar, but then strikes again with renewed vigor. It stops her in her tracks — it obliterates everything else, becomes the only thing she can focus on. She holds onto her knees and keens.

When she looks up, she finds a pair of curious eyes fixed on her: a mangy white cat, sitting in the branches of the cypress tree.

“Oh, make yourself useful!” she snaps. “Go fetch help, or find that stupid rat!”

It flicks its tail, then rises and ambles away.

“Ach,” she says in disgust — somewhat at the cat, mostly at herself. They’d told her the signs, but she ignored them. How could she be so bull-headed? “This can’t happen now. It can’t.”

This time, she almost makes it across the courtyard before she has to stop again.

Pain, pain —

— and a clatter at the gate.

Holding onto the doorframe for support, underneath the cross that had been nailed there before they moved in, she bares her teeth and snarls, “Jorge Guavarrez, if that’s you, I am not in the mood today and I will knock your teeth out.”

A beat.

The cat mewls.

Imelda lifts her head, and finds that one pair of curious eyes has become two: one belongs to the cat, the other to the girl carrying it; round-faced, toes sticking out over the ends of sandals that are much too small for her. She can’t be more than four or five.

It takes a moment before the name snaps into place in Imelda’s head.

“Rosita,” she says in relief, and lowers her voice, tries for some of Héctor’s cajoling friendliness. “Rosi-ti-ti-ta Esposito, who was that snapping just now? Was it me, or was it a big mean turtle?”

It lures Rosita out.

“Are there turtles here?” she wants to know.

“Mean ones,” Imelda confirms.

Rosita tilts her head.

“You don’t look good, señora,” she announces, after some consideration. “Do you need the nuns?”

God bless the intuitiveness of girls, Imelda thinks.

“Please, Rosita,” and her voice sounds weak with relief, even to her. “Can you run and fetch them for me?”

Rosita brings her Sister Lupe, a brisk, impersonal woman with a puckered sour mouth like an apple that’s been left in the larder too long. The first thing she is does as she rolls up the sleeves of her habit is inform Imelda that she’s delivered practically every baby in Santa Cecilia herself, and she doesn’t think there’s anything remarkable at all about what Imelda is doing and would she please just get on with it — and with less screaming, preferably.

“It hurts!” Imelda shouts in her face, flipping into fury just like that.

The nun heaves a sigh.

“The more breath you waste on screaming, the less you have for pushing,” she says, irritated. “But by all means, make your job more difficult.”

“Oh, piss off,” Imelda snaps.

Her whole day passes in that vein: Sister Lupe lamenting at length about how stupid, uneducated, and useless Imelda is. Didn’t she know strenuous exercise makes labor come on sooner? And why on earth was she pushing with each oncoming pain? All she’s done is exhausted herself before anything has really happened.

“I thought you’re supposed to push!”

“Let me guess,” Sister Lupe retorts. “You came from the kind of family that thinks if you don’t know these things, then you will never do these things, and then they acted all betrayed when you did them anyway. Well. What can I do? Stupid breeds stupid.”

Imelda almost hits her.

“You miserable old hag,” she snarls. Belatedly, she wonders if talking to a nun like this is what gets you smote by God.

It might be a nice break.

Sister Lupe just pats her knee. “That’s the spirit. We’ve got a long ways to go yet.” She raises her voice. “Rosita Esposito, are you still there?”

A scuffle answers, and then the little girl’s round face tentatively pokes around the doorframe. “Sí, Sister?”

“Can you run back to the church and tell them to bring the chair?”

“The what?” squawks Imelda in alarm.

It’s exactly what it sounds like. An unpadded wooden chair with a hole in it, and Imelda balks at the sight of it.

“No,” she says, and drags backwards against Sister Lupe’s grip, digging her heels in hard enough to make her mares proud. “No, no. We’re — we can’t — that is an abomination and we are Catholic.”

“And the conquistadors would have you believe the only way to give birth is on your back, but where’s the logic in that? That’s twice as much work for the woman. But we,” she braces their weights, immovable, and when Imelda tosses her braid out of the way to glare at her, she leans in and squeezes her arm, “We are the women who birthed Tenochtitlán. We know better. Like this, gravity helps us.”

“It’s a chair with a hole in it,” Imelda says despairingly.

“Would you rather lie down and whelp like a dog, or do you want to meet what’s coming with your head up?”

Imelda looks at her, the aged lines around her mouth and the sweat beading up along the band of her wimple. The grip of her hands has not faltered, and Imelda thinks of the women who ran Pancho Villa’s war camp. She thinks, stingingly, of her own mother.

Wordlessly, she peels her lips up off of her teeth.

“Thought so,” says Sister Lupe.

 

*

 

To her credit, she doesn’t make Imelda sit in the chair immediately. They go around and around the room for what feels like hours, repeating variations of “can I push now?” and “no, you dumb girl, I’ll tell you when,” until Imelda is well and truly sick of it.

“Don’t snarl at me,” says the sister. By now, Imelda's gotten the impression she was born implacable, and never bothered to revise her low opinion of the whole world and everyone in it, not through two wars and a dysentery outbreak. “You got yourself into this mess, you can take your bitters with your panela.”

Outside, she can hear the distant shouting, the clatter of the gates that has to be her closest neighbor — it’s the end of the day, when the men come home. When Héctor and Ernesto should be coming home, if they were here.

I’m going to kill him, she thinks, and says it out loud on her next protracted groan.

Sister Lupe doesn’t look impressed.

“I hear that a lot,” she remarks, holding Imelda up. “And yet people still ask if it was hard, taking a vow of chastity.”

“Oh, no, not that,” Imelda pants. “That was fun, I’ll do that again, it’s —“

Another wave swamps her under, and she loses track of her complaint, which amounts to how come, if Héctor had seen his mother bear child after child with hardly a pause in between and could recognize her condition before she knew it herself, did he never think to warn her about this part?

For that matter, why hadn’t her aunts? Her cousins? Why was Imelda always, always excluded — not only from their jokes, but from their care, too? Did it make them feel more important, keeping her squashed down and ignorant?

Oh, the awful nun is right. Stupid does breed stupid.

Sister Lupe peers at her.

“Those were much closer together that time,” she says. “I think we should try sitting now, all right, señora?”

And since it’s the politest she’s been to her so far, Imelda nods and lets herself be maneuvered into place.

The sea serpent is a-moving, she thinks in her mental Ernesto voice, and then, more inwardly, Please, little one, please. We’ve got to meet what’s coming.

As if in answer, her next two pains come so punishingly strong Imelda wants to break the chair, or break herself, or break anything handy.

When the second releases her, she collapses, weeping, and Sister Lupe is on her knees between her legs in an even more undignified position. She gives Imelda’s ankles a sharp knock.

“We’re not done yet,” she reminds her.

“I want to go home,” Imelda whimpers.

She surprises herself more than she surprises Sister Lupe. Imelda isn’t the kind of person who sounds like that, and yet, here she is. Her hair hangs in her face. Snot drips down her lip, into her mouth, but she’s beyond caring.

“I want to go home,” she says again, and Sister Lupe darts her an impatient look.

“You are home, girl,” she says, and this time —

Imelda lunges for her, snapping her teeth.

A ferocious growl, “Santa Cecilia is not my home,” and Sister Lupe almost has an expression.

“Where is your home, then,” but that’s not the real problem and she knows it. Quieter, she asks, “why can’t you go back?”

Imelda snarls again, and strains as another heaving pain lifts her up out of the chair.

“Did you elope?” Sister Lupe looks curious, but in a clinical way, prodding her the same way she’d pressed her hands to Imelda’s belly to feel around for the shape of the thing inside.

“No,” Imelda answers, panting her way back down. “No, no, we were married in the eyes of God and all His saints, have no fear about that.” And then it slips out of her, entirely without her meaning to: “We left them.”

Sister Lupe ticks an eyebrow.

“We ran away,” Imelda says, because once you tell a truth you have to keep telling it. “We lied and ran away. Me, my brothers, we left everyone — we wouldn’t have survived if we stayed, we didn’t look back — we — we — I abandoned my family. Left them for this one. I did it gladly.

“Is that what I’m going to make, Sister? If stupid breeds stupid, what does abandonment breed?”

There isn’t an answer, and Imelda grits her teeth, screams through them, which is one wasted labor pain and Sister Lupe doesn’t even correct her. Her brows are drawn together.

“Almost there, girl,” she says quietly.

Imelda cranes over the arm of the chair and drops her head against her arm, exhausted.

She wants Héctor here. She wants him to press his head against hers, she wants his hands to take this from her — she would trust anything to his hands; herself, their reputations, their future. She wants Ernesto, who would wrap his arms around her and support her weight with seemingly no effort. She wants her mother.

Most of all, more than anything, she wants her mother.

Her every touch had been an apology, Imelda thinks now, for all the things she couldn’t control: Mariano Consequela’s death, her own dependency on her brother-in-law that limited what she could do for Óscar and Felipe and Imelda, her blackness that made her a target among all the lighter Consequelas. Every touch, her way of saying, I’m sorry I’m not somebody else, somebody who could do this better.

But there isn’t anybody else Imelda would rather have with her, now.

“Mamá, Mamá,” she sobs, so cripplingly lonely she’s sure it will kill her.

“Ah,” says Sister Lupe.

The pain gives way to a full, throbbing ache. Imelda eases back, and waits.

Then:

“Here, girl, it’s yours,” and something gets dropped unceremoniously into her arms.

Imelda looks down at it with vague surprise, this briskly-swaddled thing, and feels nothing — not for one moment, not for two. Then she adjusts her grip, tugs the blanket down to get a better look at its face.

It’s squashed, and purplish, and — you know, it really does resemble a sea serpent.

“Oh,” she says, simply, as if she’d done nothing more than misplace a set of keys, only to find them in a perfectly reasonable place. Of course they were here all along. “There you are.”

Then she frowns, and sits up.

“Why isn’t it crying?” she demands. “What’s wrong with it? What did I do?”

Sister Lupe sucks at her teeth.

“Are you a musician or aren’t you?” she responds, unflappable to the last. “She’s waiting for her cue.”

With that, she reaches up and gives the baby’s foot one sharp flick of her nail.

It jerks, and lets out a startled, gusty sound, and every breath Imelda has ever held in her entire life rushes out of her at once.

“There,” the nun says with satisfaction.

She might as well be on the moon. Imelda doesn’t hear her.

The world begins and ends with that face, that tiny face come suddenly alive, and Imelda brings it up to her mouth to kiss it helplessly, dizzily, again and again, saying, “Hello, hello, hello, little sea serpent, hello,” because —

Because she hadn’t believed it, not really, not until this moment, that this wouldn’t go the same way the last one did. She absolutely believed she could get this far and still have to bury it. Some part of her coils up tight, its teeth and quivering spines on display, waiting for it to be snatched from her. Waiting for anything to try.

“With respect,” and that’s Sister Lupe, with Imelda’s second-best crockery in hand, full of afterbirth — put that out in the garden, Imelda wants to tell her, it’s good for the tomatoes.

She’s at the door, half-turned to speak, and through the gap Imelda can see Rosita Esposito playing hopscotch down the hallway. Good God, isn’t that girl hungry? Isn’t her mother worried?

Something moves out of the way of Rosita’s hopping feet. The mangy white cat turns its head, and looks directly at her.

“With respect, señora,” Sister Lupe says. “I think you’ll do just fine.”

Imelda blinks owlishly.

With care, she gets up out of that godawful chair, shifting her baby against her chest.

Almost casually, she starts gathering up the threads that connect her to her mother, to her husband, to Ernesto, and transfers them to one hand, so that who she is to them — daughter, wife, comadre and co-conspirator — pales in comparison to this.

She is Imelda Consequela Flores. She is Imelda Rivera.

And she is a daughter’s mother.

 

*

 

The next night, in a crowded back room full to bursting with flamenco skirts, steel-toed dancing shoes, and a Jalisco musician around whom everything seems to orbit, a messenger boy with a pet rat in his pocket bursts through the door.

“Héctor Rivera?” he bellows, in the foghorn voice that got him the job. “Telegram for Héctor Rivera!”

“That one, over there,” helpful fingers emerge from the clouds of fabric to point.

Putting one hand over his pocket protectively — the dancers have heeled shoes with nails embedded in them, and the sound they make struck against the floor is astonishing, percussive, and tiny claws pinprick through his shirt in protest — he runs up to a trio of men seated around a rickety table.

“Señor Rivera?”

“Sí? The handsome one, that’s me,” says the skinniest and beakiest of the lot.

A burst of laughter, and the boy says, “… for you,” doubtfully.

“Sí,” Señor Rivera says again. He’s restringing an instrument for one of the fiddlers, a little boy clearly overwhelmed but trying to hide it, nodding along to the instructions given to him. He’s younger than the messenger, who looks at his blotchy face with a smug sort of condescension that you can only really muster when you’ve only just stopped being a little kid yourself. “Nothing to worry about, muchacho, see? Hold on,” Señor Rivera clamps the fiddle between his knees and fishes in his pockets for payment. The messenger trades him his telegram.

The noise of the room continues on after he leaves: warbling voices practicing their lines, dancers testing their shoes on the floor, acolytes calling for their equipment.

And then Héctor Rivera is on top of the table, shouting to be heard above it all.

“I have a daughter! My wife — a baby! A daughter!”

He stops, and looks down at the card clutched in his shaking hands, and then throws his head back and laughs — a crazy bursting sound bigger than any grito, impossibly big, much too big to come from one person. Everywhere around the room, heads turn.

“A daughter!” he shouts again. “Me, a daughter’s father!”

Several of the busy, bustling people stop to say congratulations, and would he please get down, señor, and a broad, mustached man with kind eyes offers him a drink, which he takes and then looks at like he doesn’t know where it came from.

The Jalisco musician slaps his hand on the table, nudging Héctor’s boot. “Ay, papá, what’s her name?”

Héctor opens his mouth —

And a look of utter, comedic incomprehension crosses his face.

“I … don’t know,” he says, and looks back to the telegram, even flipping it over, though of course no further message appears. “We didn’t — have anything picked out, not this time.”

The color drains from his face alarmingly fast, and the third man at the table finally stands. He reaches up and grabs Héctor Rivera by the hips, pulling him off the table before he falls off. He plunks him back down on his chair, gives him a shake. Héctor looks up, every thought plainly visible: she’s just been born and I’ve already failed her. How can I not know her name?

“Ernesto,” he croaks, barely audible. “Please.”

And Ernesto de la Cruz looks back at his best friend, and there’s a moment, just the one, where something spiteful tugs inside of him.

Of course this happened now, of course it did, right at the very moment they are where they want to be! Could she have planned this? How could she know?

But then he draws in a breath, and it passes.

“Of course,” he says, and turns to the Jalisco man, hand to his heart, apologetic. “Señor —“

“Go,” the musician waves at them. “There will be other times, and I look forward to playing with you then. Go, with my blessings.”

But later …

Only later will it occur to Ernesto that he could have stayed.

He could have sent Héctor on back to Santa Cecilia without him, and gone on stage after the flamenco dancers were done to play alongside the man who put mariachi music in every household. This thing with the baby didn’t really have anything to do with him, so why didn’t he?

Here’s the simple truth:

It did not cross his mind. Not once. He puts a hand under Héctor’s elbow and levers him up, saying, “let’s go, amigo, I’m with you,” because it does not occur to him that there’s anywhere else to be but here, now, where the most important person in his life needs him most.

This only happens once, he reminds himself, but of course that’s only partially correct.

A child’s only born once, but if Ernesto de la Cruz can get families right this time, here’s where he gets it wrong: a child might be born once, but the child will always come first, before and above everything.

It’s what children do.

 

*

 

It’s a sticky effort to wake up, ungluing her eyes and peeling her mouth apart, so after the initial attempt, she turns her head against the pillow and doesn’t bother.

Not long later, the noises outside become too loud to ignore. She can hear the chickens, fussily competing with men’s voices and the excited whinnying of the horses. Who let the chickens out? Who let those men in and stabled the horses? If it’s Jorge Guavarrez, she’s going to kill him and bury him with Díaz’s dysentery victims, she swears it.

She opens her eyes. Sure enough, the sunlight’s already reached her bureau, rapidly climbing — it’s unforgivably late in the morning.

Groaning, she struggles to push herself upright, and two things scream for her attention.

The first: she aches, everywhere.

The second: her baby is not where Sister Lupe left her.

She’d been checking up on Imelda like clockwork the past two days, and last night had wrapped the baby up tight beside her with an admonition of, “don’t roll over onto her in your sleep, I will be back in,“ a quick, upside-down squint at her watchpiece, “— four hours, looks like, and we’ll see about getting that cradle brought in here.”

Imelda jolts, panic stabbing into her stomach and scooping out her guts in one single movement.

She lifts the blanket — checks underneath —

— like a baby could be lost like an earring? What is she thinking?

— scrambles to her elbows. Where —

Movement — a creaking.

“Imelda?”

She stills. Stretches her hand out.

It encounters something soft, feathery. Hair.

Her husband is on the floor beside the bed, still wearing his shoes and a good layer of dust, as if he came straight off his horse into the house without pause, picked up the baby, and fell down. She’s there, tucked against his chest, and answers him with a soft, hiccuping noise of her own.

Relief makes Imelda light-headed. She droops, belly-down.

“Imelda,” Héctor says to her, very seriously. “I don’t think I can put her down. I don’t think I am ever putting her down.”

“Oh, good,” says Imelda vaguely. “That’s good.”

Everything in the world is sorted.

“I’m going back to sleep.”

The next she wakes, she has the all-over feeling of a day-old bruise, and there’s a heavy, persistent ache in her breasts that tells her it’s time to attempt feeding. She reaches out, and finds Héctor exactly where she left him.

“What did you name her?” he turns his head to ask, like there’d been no interruption in their conversation. “The nun came by, she wanted to know, but said to let you sleep.”

“Oh,” says Imelda.

She scrubs at the crust around her eyes. She hadn’t even thought of it.

No, that’s a lie. She’d avoided thinking about it, as if an unpleasant thought can be put aside by busying yourself with a hundred others. Imelda hadn’t wanted to think about names, and Héctor had followed her lead, because —

— her first baby had a name, and then didn’t.

Calling it “baby” worked just fine, but won’t from here on out. It’s not very Catholic, she supposes, and “sea serpent” even less so.

“I don’t know. Give her to me, please.”

“Imelda … I … I can’t feel my arms.”

She blinks.

“Have you … moved?”

He turns his head, brows knitted together incredulously. “No. Of course not.”

Affection beats against her ribs, gives her heart a shove to make room for it.

She pulls herself to the edge of the mattress, right behind his head, and whispers to him like she’s imparting a secret, “you can move, I promise they don’t break as easily as you’d think,” and, quickly, “not typically.”

Imelda.”

She cards her fingers through his hair, comes down to scratch the back of his neck.

Like this is permission, Héctor closes his eyes and curls his body forwards, bringing the baby up with trembling effort to meet him so he can kiss her forehead. Imelda’s heart gets rudely shouldered in the other direction.

“I asked my mother once,” he murmurs, after a long moment, lifting up only far enough to speak. “If it was hard for her, since there were so many of us.”

He straightens out, quirking her a smile from the corner of his mouth.

“I’d been given the task of learning tolerance, you see, since it’s hard to be patient when there’s seven of you — seven children and, to be honest, my father too — all clamoring for attention, and I wasn’t very good at it. So I asked her if she ever felt like we were asking for more love than she had to give.

“She told me no. That she’d always wanted us, that she’d thought of us since she was a small girl herself, and so having us wasn’t anything new — she already loved us. All of that love was there for us to have, and it never got smaller. Imelda, I understand exactly what my mother meant now. I know her,” he says to that little, wrinkled face and the little, wrinkled hands. “I’ve loved her for years.”

And that —

That is it exactly.

Imelda had loved her first child, been ready to love it, and when it died that love didn’t go anywhere. She carried it with her, all through Oaxaca, into Puebla and Michoacán and Morelos, too, through the cloud forest and the cowboys on the steppe and the Zapotec village, here to this very moment, when at last her daughter arrived to claim it.

She shifts, tucking her hand under her cheek.

“Héctor … your mother, what was her name?”

Slowly, he looks up.

“Socorro,” he answers, questioningly.

And Imelda smiles.

 

*

 

Socorro Rivera Consequela is baptized on the last Sunday of the month, in a gown that Ernesto bought them and then altered himself, with a white lace train that drapes all the way down her mother’s front. Imelda thinks it’s probably the nicest piece of clothing they own between the three of them, the kind that’s going to go into a box immediately and only brought out a generation from now. She holds it speechlessly for a long time, then stretches up and kisses Ernesto’s cheek in thanks, grateful all at once that he is the person he is.

Héctor and Imelda ask him to be godfather, of course, although it’s not really asking because it was a foregone conclusion.

“Who’s my comadre?” he asks them smilingly. “Who’s the godmother?”

Héctor looks to Imelda.

Imelda draws a complete blank.

She’d been thinking about asking one of the nuns — not Sister Lupe, but Madre Emmanuela, maybe, although they’re probably not allowed to do that. She doesn’t have any female friends, or relatives, or anyone she wants to ask, is the problem.

(Later, of course, she’ll be able to identify her reluctance for what it was: a fear that if she befriended a group of women, they’d become to her what her aunts and cousins had been, once; running roughshod over her, belittling her, keeping her in the dark so that they could seem more enlightened in comparison. Right now, though, she’s only nineteen, and it’s easy to convince herself she has nothing in common with the other women of Santa Cecilia. If she tells herself they’re all too catty to bother with, she won’t have to try.)

(Besides, she’s got to be careful. She’s protecting Héctor and Ernesto, too. She doesn’t need nosy people poking around her house, looking at their sleeping arrangements.)

In short, her hostility’s won her no potential godmothers for Coco.

“Can’t I just stick you in a dress again?” she complains to Héctor, wondering if they can just skip that part. Surely there are children out there with only one godparent? Is she willing to do that, though — bring Coco into a world already lacking something?

“I think someone might notice it’s me under there, this time,” he answers.

“Ach,” says Imelda.

She gets up, and briskly folds the thought away to worry about later. When she shuts the door behind her, Héctor’s still standing there, frowning thoughtfully at his desk.

She forgets about the exchange, and it’s weeks later, when they’re sitting around on overturned pails in the courtyard, that a rider comes to the gate on horseback.

They hear him before they see him; the clipclop of hooves on the cobblestones, uncertain and searching, and since there aren’t too many people who live out this way, the only thing a visitor could be looking for is them. Imelda glances over at Héctor and Ernesto, hiking her eyebrows, but Ernesto shrugs back at her. I don’t know, his expression says, but the music picks up right then and he rises to meet it.

In her arms, Coco squirms around. Not for the first time, Imelda is grateful her talents are vocal, not instrumental. She’d only have enough lap for one.

Sure enough, a rider appears at the open gate, dismounts and wraps his horse’s reins around his hand. The courtyard is illuminated, insects drifting in and out of pools of yellow light, the cypress shushing its branches in greeting. Héctor and Ernesto clap out a beat against the bellies of their guitars, one-and-two, then trill their way up the notes alongside Imelda’s voice. The visitor stands and watches.

He waits until they finish, then says, “Marvelous, as always, amigos.”

And there’s a moment where Imelda doesn’t recognize him, and still doesn’t, and then —

She stands.

Gabriel?”

Because it is — she’d know those eyebrows anywhere. But it’s Gabriel in women’s clothing, pushing uncomfortably at the belt around his waist, adjusting his breasts in an old-fashioned blouse and then pretending that wasn’t what he’d been doing. He clears his throat.

“Heard you had a baby,” he says gruffly, and Imelda looks at Héctor, who looks back at her with wide-eyed innocence. “Comadre, you still serious about naming me a godparent?”

Laughing, disbelieving, Imelda goes to him and embraces him, hard enough that Coco lets out a wail, protesting the indignity.

And she’s no expert, but she’s pretty sure this is what parents are supposed to do; birth parents or godparents, doesn’t matter which. They cross deserts, mountains, rivers, bridges for moments like this.

“Are you sure?” she checks, pulling back and holding him out at arm’s length.

If he’s spent his whole life avoiding dresses, how can she ask this of him?

He spreads his hands, gesturing around with a wry expression. “Are you the traveling musicians or aren’t you? I’d be more concerned if someone wasn’t in costume!”

“I’m going to cry,” she announces with something approaching bafflement, seconds before she does.

And so Coco is baptized inside the warm, soft-lit interior of the Santa Cecilia cathedral on the last Sunday of the month. The priest and the baptismal font hang framed inside the rose window behind them, and Imelda keeps blinking fragments of stained glass light from her eyes. She and Héctor brace their hands under Coco’s body as holy water pours across her forehead back into the font, and Ernesto and Gabriel flank them as witnesses as they lift her up and introduce her to God.

There’d been no baptism last time, and the relief Imelda feels is indescribable, that Coco at least is accounted for.

That she is seen, and known, and Imelda stands here with her daughter in a circle of the people she loves most, and hopes that God in heaven is as proud of them as she is.

 

*

 

The previous claim was a lie. There’s one more thing you need to know:

1. Every year for Día de los Muertos, she keeps a plate of pan de muertos — or elotitos, or conchas dyed orange and purple for the holiday, or whatever they have on hand — separate from the rest, and at the end of the night she calls the children to her and tells them to find a grave in the cemetery that looks like it hadn’t been left anything, and to give them an offering. The ritual’s the same, no matter the faces: Victoria and Elena and Soledad’s boys; Berto and Gloria, back before Gloria started hiding make-up in Coco’s room and asking to keep a pair of heels from the shop, pretending they were for a girlfriend. (“You are past your quince años,” she’d said, the first time she caught her, lipstick too dark because she didn’t know how to blot and panic blanching all the color from her face, and she wished for one moment that Tío Gabriel were here, and then abruptly realized she knew exactly what she had to say, “there’s no reason you can’t wear make-up if you want,” and opened her arms when Gloria flooded into them. She’d been the one to suggest “Gloria” as a name, actually, on one of the trips to the doctors in Mexico City.) Abel and Rosa, and Miguel.

“Mamá Coco, do you take one too?” he asks her, standing with her at the mouth to the cemetery.

“Sí,” she says, and waits until they all dart off, winding in between the headstones.

Her stop is always the same: a flat footstone grave for a Socorro Rivera and her six children. She takes the last offering and sets it down, touches the birth dates one-by-one, before slipping back to the gap between those first two children. This, she figures, is where her father would have gone if he hadn’t survived.

“Okay, I did what you asked!” Miguel rematerializes.

She looks up, and can tell immediately by the way he darts his eyes and shuffles his heels together that he probably did do what she told him, and then snuck off to leave something at the big white tomb on the hill, too.

Then his eyes slide past her, and she watches him sound out the letters.

“Hey!” It clicks. “That’s your name!” He looks again: the weedy overgrown grave, the single offering. “Is that why you picked it?”

“Maybe it’s a coincidence,” Coco responds, and gets up. She takes the plate in one hand and Miguel’s hand in the other. “But maybe they’re family. Either way, they deserve to be remembered, don’t you think?”

 

*

 

“Was it what you thought it would be?” Héctor asks.

They’re having a quiet moment — one of those sunlit, precious slices of time that Imelda can recognize as sunlit and precious and fleeting even as it’s happening. It’s her, Héctor, and Coco, stretched out on the bed with the world moving hourglass-slow outside the window, the sunlight as lazy and golden as the meat of an orange. Coco hasn’t quite gotten the hang of grabbing things yet, so it’s more Imelda and Héctor tucking their fingers against her hand until she reflexively closes it around them, and smiling stupidly at each other.

After she drifts off to sleep, Imelda carefully gathers her up and returns her to the bureau — the crib still isn’t made, and Imelda doesn’t want to point the finger at Héctor stalling just to stretch out moments like this, but call it like it is — where they’ve pulled out a drawer and made her a nest.

She turns around, and Héctor pushes himself upright.

Frankly, she tells him, “I hated it, every second,” because she did — being hijacked by something growing uncontrollably larger inside of her had been unpleasant, every part.

“Oh,” he blinks.

Imelda sits down on the edge of the bed, and presses her shoulder into his.

“I want to do it again,” she confesses.

Oh,” he says in a completely different tone.

She takes one look at his face and barks out a scandalized laugh.

“Not now!” she protests, shoving him away from her. “I meant in a few years, when we’ve met Coco properly and have had time to know what to expect.” He rebounds, catching himself against her and tugging her close, and she tries to be stern. “Héctor. If you get me heavy again this soon, I will kill you.”

But she’s tipping her head back even as she says it, allowing him access to her neck, and he leans her back, kissing her soft, with ardor.

As his mouth moves over her pulse, her clavicle, Imelda shifts to press against him more fully, lifting her knees, and damned if this isn’t the running theme of her life: that Héctor Rivera makes her want to be contrary to everything, including what she just said.

But then there’s footsteps in the hall.

“Imelda?” Ernesto’s voice calls through the door, and peeling herself away from Héctor is like ripping off a layer of skin. “I’ve been meaning to ask — what happened to the courtyard? I know it was in bad shape, but surely we didn’t leave it like that?”

“Oh,” she says, shoving her skirts down and swinging to her feet. “No, that was me. I was laying new cobbles.”

Héctor, who’d been watching her go, doe-eyed and tousle-haired, almost falls off the bed.

“You were — “ he starts, strangled.

“Laying new cobbles,” Imelda confirms, and opens the door. “Which still needs to be finished. Thank you for volunteering, Señor de la Cruz, I would love your help, thank you.”

He blinks at her. “Um?”

 

*

 

“I know she’s your sea monster, but,” he says to her on another occasion, when a group of abuelas stop them to peel the blanket back and bestow kisses on Coco’s head and she smacks her lips back at them but otherwise remains unmoved. “I was kind of expecting her to be more interesting. Is she … all right?”

“Stick your head in a bucket,” Imelda tells him, cheerfully.

There is, however, a part of her that has to admit he’s right: newborn babies aren’t that interesting, not when they’re yours and you’re responsible for them when they’re being cute and when they’re not.

Coco interrupts their sleep at regular intervals, stays awake for twenty minutes, and then sleeps for another four.

In short order, Imelda and Héctor take their old rule — she falls asleep first, before he can start snoring at her — and politely chuck it out the window, in favor of snatching whatever, wherever they can.

Ernesto shrugs. “If you say so. Lucky for you, everyone loves a chance to coo over babies. I hope she’ll turn out pretty. Your sons can have Héctor’s nose.”

“Hey,” Héctor says.

Imelda says, “Don’t be a donkey, Ernesto.”

But he isn’t the only one who’s saying it.

“It’s not so bad, you’ll have a boy next. It’ll be good to have a daughter around then — an extra pair of hands to help you with that!” a woman says to her after church, her voice conspiratorial, and Imelda just gives her the blankest stare.

“I did not,” she says to Héctor later, haughtily. “Go through all that work just for some pinch-assed old nag to give me her condolences.”

“Imelda!”

“What?”

He makes a show of checking Coco’s ears, like he expects to find the cartilage warped or curdling.

“Language!” he hisses.

Ach!”

 

*

 

“No, no, niños — like this!”

He hops to the left, crossing one foot behind the other and using his toe to drum the board that covers the drainage ditch like it’s a stage — one, two. His hands remain tucked behind his back in proper position. His impromptu class can’t manage that part, flailing their arms everywhere when they try to imitate him and lose their balance. Héctor’s smile is at once generous, and fond.

“Well,” he allows. “You’re getting there.”

Then he uses the foot already poised to spin into the next sequence. The children holler and give chase.

Standing in the shade, Imelda crosses her own ankles and drums out the counter-rhythm, and wishes that Héctor could see himself the way the rest of them see him sometimes: that he draws people in, that he always adjusts his performance based on their suggestions regardless of whether he’s playing or dance or singing, and makes them feel like a valued part of the experience. It’s as much a draw as Ernesto’s handsomeness, Imelda’s beauty — his own kind of appeal.

A voice derails her train of thought.

“Imelda —“

And she’s instantly alert, because Ernesto doesn’t use that voice with her. Not often.

“— in case I haven’t said it, I’m glad you didn’t die.”

She ducks her head so he can’t see the face she makes. Where’s this coming from?

The mid-morning bustle of the market continues on around them; vendors picking through their bruised fruit, the baker collecting his empty pans, mothers checking periodically to make sure their children are still with the músico. Relatively certain no one is eavesdropping, she tilts her head. “Did you have a plan? For what you would have done if I’d died and Coco didn’t?”

“Héctor didn’t want to talk about it. Wouldn’t consider it.”

“Sí. He’s eighteen.”

“Says you. You’re not that much older, you know. But yes. I put the provisions in place. I’ve … never been gladder to not have to implement a plan.”

Good, your plans are terrible, she thinks.

“I’m glad you don’t want me dead. That’s good to know.”

“Imelda.”

Exasperation. Which — fair.

“… okay. Me too. Me — me too.”

“Good. Now, can you please take her back? She’s — wiggling.”

“She’s a baby! That’s what they do!”

“It’s like trying to hold onto a snake!”

“That’s your nickname for her, it’s not her fault. Yes, you, we’re talking about you! Oh, there’s no need to fuss, Coco, this is Ernesto. He won’t drop you.”

 

*

 

Héctor. Focus, will you?”

“I’m focused, I’m focused!”

“You’re goofing off, that’s what you’re doing. Come — come on.”

Imelda hears the exact moment Ernesto loses his temper.

His tone notches itself like an arrow, whittled to a sharp point, and as it fires she reacts to the violence of it before she understands why. She stops at the door to the bedroom and finds Ernesto sitting on the edge of their bed, guitar in his lap, where he’s been trying to get Héctor to practice with him. She’s been listening to them stutter and stop on all the main staples from their tour, but had figured they were just rusty.

Behind the body of Héctor’s guitar, Imelda can just barely see Coco, tucked into her bureau drawer. She’s got one foot in both her hands and seems inordinately pleased by this accomplishment, the uncaptured foot pedaling at the air in her excitement.

Ah, she thinks, putting the pieces together.

Héctor keeps getting distracted from what Ernesto’s playing, plucking out fiddly tunes just to see Coco’s reactions instead, the same way he’d done to Imelda’s belly before she’d been born. And if Imelda can tell Ernesto’s about to have a fit, there’s no way it’s lost on Héctor, who’s made Ernesto one of his primary languages.

She holds her breath.

Héctor frowns. Ernesto sticks his jaw out at him.

Coco kicks her foot out of her own grasp, and then passes wind. Loudly.

A beat. Three heads turn in her direction.

Her face screws up and she begins to wail, clearly having frightened herself, and the tension in the room snaps. Laughing, Héctor sets his guitar aside and scoops her up to pat her reassuringly, and Ernesto rumbles, “goodness, sea serpent, what was that?” and Imelda slowly lets herself relax, trying not to think about how that might have gone, otherwise.

 

*

 

“— oh, I wish you could have been there to hear it!”

“So do I,” Imelda remarks, for what feels like the hundredth time. She pulls her shawl up, wincing as the movement shifts Coco against her chest; she’s starting to reconcile herself with the fact that it won’t matter how long she breastfeeds for, it won’t ever be comfortable. She tugs on a corner of the fabric to clean Coco’s face.

From there, she brushes her fingertips over that soft, curly dark hair — it’s too early to tell, but Imelda thinks Coco might have gotten Héctor’s hair, finer and easier to care for than her own — and tucks her legs up under her on the settee.

Ernesto’s still talking.

“— said we had talent. And his house! I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Oh, here we go. Get Ernesto started on any of the big celebrity haciendas, much less the one they just visited, and that’s a solid five minute nap for everyone in the immediate vicinity. You could probably cook an egg to it. Imelda wanders around mentally, cataloguing chores, and tunes back in when she thinks he might be done.

“And that was just with the two of us. Imagine how we could have impressed him if we’d had you there and could have done a full number, a —”

“Would he?” Imelda interrupts.

Ernesto blinks, derailed.

“I — what?”

“If I’d been there. You’re talking about the Jalisco musician. They’ve got opinions there about that kind of thing. You don’t think he would have looked down his nose at a woman mariachi the same way Pancho Villa used to sneer about the soldaderas in his camp?”

“I …” Ernesto blinks at her again, absently brushing back his forelock. “I … hadn’t thought about it.”

Yeah, Imelda agrees, silently. That’s your problem.

He tries to pick up with his retelling of their trip, but the wind’s out of his sails now, and eventually, he trails off.

“I hope he meant it, that he wants to play with us again. I wish you could have been there, and heard him,” he repeats, on a wistful note.

She hadn’t wanted them to go. But they’d gone, and while they were being mariachi with the man who put that music on the map, she delivered Coco alone.

“So do I,” Imelda says, and means it.

“But she can!”

Their heads come around. Héctor swans into the room, beating plumes of dust off his clothes: it’d been his turn for the horses.

He looks up and catches them staring at him. He flashes a grin.

“The Jalisco musician, right?” Hopping on one foot and then the other, he tugs his boots off and sets them aside. “You don’t need to pine. We can listen to him whenever we want.”

He passes Ernesto, brushing a hand over his hair so the forelock flops right back down into the position it had been in, and squeezes Imelda’s shoulder as he rounds the settee, peeking down at the sleepily feeding Coco. He slides in next to her, oblivious to his wife’s flatly reptilian look.

“Señor Garciarona got his phonograph,” he explains, when the silence stretches. “And I got him the records.”

Ernesto and Imelda dart a look at each other.

“So all we have to do is ask, I think. I’m sure he’d love to show it off, and you know how Señora Garciarona is about indulging him.”

When no immediate response is forthcoming, he glances up at them again. They’re still staring.

In her peripheral, she sees Ernesto’s throat move.

What?” Héctor’s brow beetles together. “Why the disbelief? I’m not Imelda, I don’t go into every negotiation like a bull through glasswork, and unlike Ernesto here, I can’t sweet-talk people into handing over their hearts or their cash,” and there he goes again, thinking he doesn’t count because he’s not appealing the same way they are, “but sometimes I’ve got it. Señor Garciarona wanted an excuse to buy a phonograph, and I wanted an excuse to play Jalisco music. For you. For you both.”

A long moment passes.

Ernesto’s the first to find his voice again.

“Imelda.” His tone is pleasant. “Move.”

“Can’t. I’m occupied,” she retorts. She’s not jostling her daughter.

“I don’t mean leave the room. I mean scoot down a bit.”

“Why?”

“I’m going to suck your husband off.”

“Oh,” she says. “Well, why didn’t you say so.”

She puts her feet down and budges over.

“Wha — ?“ Héctor starts, hand half-outstretched in her direction as if he wants to catch her, but then Ernesto’s out of his chair. There isn’t much distance, the room’s too small for that, and without a change of expression, he slides to the ground in front of them.

Dry-mouthed, Imelda darts a look over and can tell exactly when Héctor stops breathing.

Ernesto takes hold of his knees and palms his thighs for a greedy moment before spreading them wide open, pulling him forward until his rump just barely rests on the edge of the cushion. He holds one knee notched to his ribs and the other hand slides up, rucking up Héctor’s shirt and exposing his stomach.

“You,” he breathes, and dips his head. “You knew how much we wanted to hear him again. You knew. And you got it for us.”

“Of course I did.” Héctor’s voice is thin, strained the same high color as his cheeks. “You wanted it.”

He looks down at the top of Ernesto’s head, and brushes a fingertip along his hairline in a manner both reverent and familiar, the way people will touch statues of saints until there’s a bald patch in the paint. Ernesto tongues his way down his stomach to the waist of his pants, where the fabric’s fraying from wear.

It bubbles out of Imelda, suddenly overfull, and she laughs, unable to help the wild, impossible joy of it. She settles against the arm of the settee, tucking the shawl down to obscure Coco entirely. She’s not involved in this.

Héctor’s head sinks back bonelessly on his neck, seeking. “Imelda?”

Ernesto’s looking at her, too, eyes rolled as far as possible in her direction without moving his head, and she shows teeth.

“We want it,” she says lowly.

”Imelda.”

“Mmhm. Will you give it to us?”

The effect of that is immediate, and it’s Ernesto’s turn to laugh before he puts his hands down to still the helpless hitch of Héctor’s hips, tipping him into his mouth without ceremony. Héctor flings a hand over his head, gripping the back of the settee white-knuckled, his mouth open and soundless.

 

*

 

Her cousin Ines said once that she looked forward to that time right after childbirth, when her husband had neither the time nor the inclination to pursue her, when he was not expected to be the center of her attention.

Imelda hadn’t known what that meant until later. It’s a long time before her body starts feeling like her own again instead of something that had been commandeered from her for nine months. Once its soreness edges into a tender bruised feeling and then settles into its new shape, she finds she’s got the inclination, but not the time. Between a demanding infant, the household jobs, Sister Lupe’s harrowing visits and the nights they perform in Mariachi Plaza, Imelda doesn’t think she’s got a chance of getting Héctor on his back without being interrupted.

“This is not a problem I expected to have,” she comments to her mare, tightening the buckle on her saddle. Madre Emmanuela requested their help, because having a farrier and three horses close at hand is a boon she’s not willing to overlook.

The pinto flicks her ears sympathetically.

Not long after that, she’s up one morning and hears Héctor out in the courtyard fetching water to boil, uncharacteristically early for him, but when she gets Coco settled again, he’s not there or in the kitchen. She finally corners him in the bathroom, where he’s swapping out the old water in their wash basin for fresh, scouring it out.

“There you are. You’re awake.”

“I’m awake,” he agrees blearily. Steam curls off the top of the water. He sets the kettle down and rubs at his neck, right where that duckling path of freckles meets his shoulder.

Desire blinks off of her like a coin flipped in sunlight, and by the time it lands, Imelda’s already made her decision.

The door snaps shut behind her.

She puts her back up against the wall. “Héctor,” she beckons him. “Come here.”

His head comes up at her tone. He blinks owlishly, and then blinks again.

Imelda says, “Okay, you’re going to have to be faster than that.”

Héctor says, with slow incomprehension, “But — I thought, after Coco you didn’t want —“

“Ach!” she fires back. “Do you know what I just went through? I want you to tear yourself bloody pushing a baby out of your down-belows and have your breasts swollen up and hurting all the time and then we’ll see if you’re in the mood.”

All of that comes out without pause. Imelda stops, takes a breath.

“Come here,” she tries again, softer now.

He catches his foot on the kettle as he turns towards her and almost pitches onto his face, but regains his balance with a graceless hop. “No build-up?” he checks.

“I don’t think we’ve got the time. Héctor,” she’s trying hard to be patient. “It has been months and if I don’t get you inside of me soon I will die.”

It works: his face cracks with a smile, and it broadens and broadens until it’s a true, genuine version of that winsome smile he gives everyone. “And you say I’m prone to exaggeration.”

Héctor —“

“You want me on my knees first?” he asks, fast.

Imelda’s stomach goes liquid.

“No. Here, up against the wall — like we used to.” She drops her voice. “I’ve missed it.”

He curses, and in two strides is across the tile. He bends to catch her under the thighs so he can heft her up in the same movement, thudding them both backwards. Imelda almost groans in relief — to have him pressed all along her front again, with intent.

“I love you,” he tells her, just like that.

“Yeah,” she laughs. She gets her arms around him and digs her nails against his scalp, feeling near-incandescent with joy.

A dozen things could interrupt them, which lends them a certain urgency — breakfast burning or Coco or the horses or the shift whistle for the construction site or —

Or Ernesto, barging through the door.

They freeze in place, swinging identical surprised looks on him.

He does a double-take, but in true Ernesto fashion, recovers smoothly. “You know,” he says, “this isn’t the kind of singing we usually do in this bathroom,” and, “don’t stop on my account, I just need the pot.”

“Good morning, Ernesto,” Héctor says, polite as you please.

He does not, however, put her down. Imelda grins against the crown of his head.

“Have we made that joke before?” She’s proud of how composed she sounds, like the open buttons of Héctor’s pants aren’t digging her in uncomfortable places, like her thighs aren’t spread and naked to her hips, her shift shoved out of the way. “In all the time we’ve been together, I don’t think we’ve made that joke before. As a euphemism.”

“Which one? Singing?”

She lowers her voice, doing her best impression of a valley accent. “Hey, handsome, want to bet I can make you hit a high note?”

Héctor’s teeth bloom against her neck. “What are you doing, what kind of voice is that?”

She’s got a retort ready, except he picks right then to shift his grip on her and thrust up, sharp enough that she cuts off with an unmistakable noise. The acoustics of the bathroom betray her; it rings off the tile.

Ernesto glances over his shoulder, and —

Without ceremony, without fanfare, almost without any acknowledgement at all, they come full circle: she’s seen them together, and Héctor’s watched Ernesto with Imelda, and now he’s seeing them. He turns towards them, picking up a washrag to scrub his face, and when he surfaces, Imelda meets his eyes over the top of Héctor’s head. He dries his hands. She feathers her fingers through Héctor’s hair, and tightens it into a fist, pulling. Héctor makes a stifled sound. Ernesto doesn’t break eye contact, but his attention sharpens.

Then Héctor manages to worm a hand in between them, giving her his knuckles to grind down against, and she lets her head fall back and gets to work on getting off.

When they finish (Héctor’s right, it could have used more build-up, she thinks, the same way one might look at their eggs and think, needs more salt,) he sets her on her feet, and drops his forehead against her collarbone, panting himself down. She curls her toes against the cool tile, enjoying the sensation, and tugs her shift into place.

“Imelda,” says Ernesto’s voice from the other end of the room. He tosses the washrag down.

She glances at him. He ticks his eyebrows up.

It’s a question.

No, it’s permission. He’s asking permission. May I?

Once, before the war, a traveling show got off the train in San Juan Albán and though they didn’t stay to perform, Imelda caught a glimpse of them over the courtyard wall; out of costume and milling around on the platform, all their luggage with the advertisement posters plaster-glued to the sides. Roaring lions, mysterious healers, and a trapeze artist suspended in midair on a wire no wider than a pencil mark.

That’s how she feels with Ernesto sometimes, precariously balanced high in the air and never knowing which contrary side of the divide she’s going to fall on.

They leave marks for each other on Héctor’s body: Ernesto’s mouthprint on the back of his neck, the skidmark of Imelda’s nails in his shoulders. She never knows how she’s going to react to the sight of the next one — if it’s going to hit her right in her competitive streak, as surely as if Ernesto had thumbed her nose at her (see? He’s mine,) or if they’re a reassurance, like they’re leaving each other notes. (I love him, you love him too. See?)

It’s the latter, today, and Imelda feels soft, stupidly fond of everything. She slips sideways along the wall, out of Héctor’s reach, and nods.

Ernesto steps in, taking him by the shoulders and turning him, pressing him back.

“Hm?” Héctor isn’t with it yet, blissed and still breathless, but he blinks and tries to pull himself together as Ernesto crowds him, practically standing on his toes. “Ernesto, what is it?”

“Nothing,” Ernesto answers, tipping his head and kissing along Héctor’s jaw. “Song of my heart.”

He does something between their bodies that Imelda can’t see through his bulk, and Héctor hisses, hitches up. He grabs Ernesto by the bicep.

“No, I can’t — again — not so quickly.”

“You don’t need to,” Ernesto strokes a restless hand down his flank, palming at the exposed bits of skin where his clothes have been pushed aside. “Let me — you gave it to her good, so good, and I want to give it to you. Can I — on you?”

Héctor’s eyes dart up, then down at the tile, then at Imelda. The expression there is startlingly open — wanting.

Permission. Again.

In the past, they’d done this in secret, where she didn’t have to think about them. After Ernesto busted his knee and they pulled him into bed with them, that changed into what Héctor jokingly called the “share nicely, take turns” game. Now — now Imelda wonders if it’s changing again. What will happen to them if it does.

Slowly, she nods.

Héctor goes boneless with relief, pulling Ernesto in. “Come on,” he says, begs, and she wonders if this is how she looked from the outside, up against the wall, “come on then. You, too.”

This is what you crossed mountains to be, Imelda, she thinks to herself.

 

*

 

There’s a man she sees at market sometimes who sells hats on a pole almost twice as tall as he is: fancy sombreros clinging to the pegs at the top, rounded bowlers and flat-tops and tan galáns, and cheap straw sunbeaters at the bottom. It’s always entertaining, watching how he navigates the crowd.

This time, when he moves, she catches sight of Sister Lupe smoking a cigarette on the corner in a manner that can really only be described as aggressively brooding, and so Imelda turns and goes the long way to avoid her, cutting through Mariachi Plaza to come up the other side. As she passes underneath Cecilia’s downturned eyes, dodging the agave growing around her like a squat, attentive, leathery audience, she spots a familiar profile at the other end. A cluster of boys surrounds him.

She quickens her pace.

“Yajaira!”

His head comes up. The boys break apart with startled guffaws.

“That’s your name?” one asks.

“It is,” Yajaira says mildly.

“But that’s a girl’s name!” another whispers, sotto voice, and Imelda looks at him as she draws up alongside, recognizing him as the oldest of the Garciarona boys — younger brother to the girl who’d ruined Imelda’s best church-going wrap out of spite.

“Who told you that?” she cuts across him, razor-sharp and stinging. “Who decides?”

She stares him down, until he looks away. When he slinks off, the other boys go with him, and, satisfied, Imelda transfers her smile to the librarian, who looks down at her with crinkle-eyed fondness. His jolly face and his thick sideburns like a magus from a nativity scene are all the same; the intervening year might as well not have happened.

“I knew if I traveled far enough, I’d find you yelling at someone,” he says. “But this is new, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Imelda agrees, laughing, “look at what I made!”

She frees Coco from her sling, and the mule hooks its head over Yajaira’s arm to investigate the transfer of baby from one pair of arms to the other. He proceeds to inspect her, smacking his lips against his teeth contemplatively.

“Very fine craftsmanship,” he announces, a solemn declaration. “Well done, señora.”

“Thank you, thank you,” Imelda curtsies. “How’s Mexico? Have you seen every last town, lake, and mountain there is to see?”

“Of course not, that’s for God to know and for me to only aspire to,” he hands Coco back and reaches out, scratching the mule behind the knot at the top of its head. It’s wearing a saddle blanket, with Yajaira’s pack on one side and his lockbox on the other, which she knows will be full of books for children and pamphlets in a dozen languages for adults.

“What about you?” he asks. “When do you hit the road again? The salons and showhouses miss you wholeheartedly.”

“Ach,” says Imelda. “Surely they’ve got out-of-work musicians by the dozen they can use,” but in case it was a serious question, she adjusts the sling. “I don’t know. Héctor and Ernesto got roped into the construction effort — it’d be bad form to leave before they finish the project they’re on, but,” she shrugs.

“Would you ever consider going to Zacatlán? To sing?”

Imelda blinks. She hasn’t thought about the clockmaker in forever.

“Zacatlán? I have brothers apprenticed there,” she hears herself say.

“I know,” and the librarian pulls a package from his satchel.

Imelda’s eyes go wide. “What — “

His teeth make an appearance, the kind of smile that has to shove his thick bovine sideburns up out of the way and plant them there.

“You’re more famous than you think. They ask about you every time.”

They juggle for the package, and Yajaira wiggles his fingers to distract Coco while Imelda pulls the twine off and the mule flaps its ears at them both. If he hadn’t been standing there, she might have pressed the brown paper to her nose to see if it still held some trace of Óscar or Felipe’s scent, even without knowing what that might be: in their hot, cramped room over the kitchens, mostly her brothers had just smelled unpleasant.

What she unwraps is a mobile; a ring of prancing horses, tossing their heads as they go around.

“Oh,” says Imelda, softly, and, “we’re definitely going to have to finish the crib now.”

And beneath that, something else — something hard.

The last of the paper comes away, leaving a frame in her hand, and Imelda stifles a noise like someone who’d just had her fingers bitten. It’s the Madonna, holding the Christ child; the portrait that Mariano Consequela had commissioned for his wife, Imelda’s mother, so that they would go into their marriage with something already uniquely theirs, the same way Imelda had gone to her brothers and asked them to make a guitar to take into hers. Last Imelda saw it, it was hanging in her mother’s room, between her pictures of Benito Juárez and the whole Consequela clan.

Dios. Mexico. Familia. Without those things, her mother said, a house is only a house. Not a home.

 

*

 

The rains come down from the mountains in the manner of schoolchildren released early from classes, a thunderous pattering in the streets and a chatter atop the roof that leave Imelda half-distracted, walking around somnolent and stupefied and vaguely surprised at herself — is a year and a half of sunshine enough to rob her of eighteen years of experience? She was born in fog, it shouldn’t have this effect on her.

In a town like Santa Cecilia, even this amount of rainfall is enough to halt all work. Left at home with nothing to distract them, Ernesto and Héctor have the first of their knock-down, drag-out fights.

Imelda doesn’t realize that’s what it is at first, scoops her hair to one side and steps into the hall, worried one of them’s getting killed.

She’s almost at the door when she hears Ernesto shout, “— like pulling teeth, getting you to care!”

And:

“I’m tired of it!”

“Oh, you’re tired?” Héctor fires back. “No, please, tell me more about how you’re tired.”

She stops in her tracks.

Héctor doesn’t raise his voice to Ernesto. Not in anger, anyway. He just doesn’t.

There’s an answering rumble of sound, Ernesto mutinously low, clearly as unused to it as Imelda is and trying to regain the thread. Then his voice soars, “— as you like, but I’m not the reason we’re failing. We weren’t supposed to still be here. That wasn’t the — our dream wasn’t — don’t you care about our dream anymore?”

It’s meant to be a blow, and it lands.

“So go!” Héctor’s voice is punched out, hurting. “What’s stopping you? Grab one of the mariachi men and travel around on your own for a bit, so you don’t get out of practice. Please!”

“No —“ followed by a loud, negative noise. “Not happening.”

“Why not?”

That noise again, a refusal, and Héctor vents out a frustrated sigh.

“Whatever you may think, I don’t want you unhappy. If I’m holding you back, then why not go on without me? No — don’t, I want an answer!”

“I can’t do that. You know I can’t do that.”

“Why not!”

Héctor’s voice cracks, suddenly, and it’s like watching an old woman fall down, or a child be sick all over their shoes — Imelda recoils from it, shamed to even be witnessing it and overwhelmingly, achingly sympathetic, all at the same time.

Backpedaling, she retreats to the bedroom, shutting the door against the noise and then realizing she’s dead-ended herself. Rather than go back out, she crosses to the window. Ernesto’s talked before about wanting to have glass put in, but all Imelda can think is how hot and stuffy that would be, like a trail church whose windows have rusted shut. She pulls the curtain aside, watching the puddles in the courtyard turn greenish in the changing light and grow into each other like spots of mold.

When Héctor comes in, shaking, he brings all the energy into the room, a brewing cataclysmic sensation that has the airs on Imelda’s arms rising to meet it.

His eyes jump to her first, and he says shortly, “If you say ‘I told you so’, I will scream.”

Imelda closes her mouth.

She has no experience with this — even when Ernesto had been at his worst, cooped up in the gatehouse sick with pain and trying to pick a fight with everybody, he’d never driven Héctor to this point, because Héctor refused to be driven.

What changed?

More importantly — how do they fix it?

Wound tight with the effort of keeping quiet, she flinches minutely at each sharp movement Héctor makes; he snaps the door shut behind him, shoves the nearly-completed crib out of the way, kicks his shoes off, and can tell he’s ready to snap at her about it when there’s a soft vocalization — the kind of sound a kitten would make.

He stops, and looks down into the open bureau drawer.

The energy leaves the room so suddenly Imelda swears her ears pop.

He reaches into the drawer and lifts Coco out, answering her fussy noise with a, “oh, I know.” Slowly, savoring it, he tucks her against his neck and rocks with her.

His eyes drift closed.

With a sudden, unerring stab of insight, Imelda knows that she could no sooner leave Héctor behind than Ernesto could. Not when they’re still waiting on him to write the ending. Not when he still holds something of theirs in his possession so vitally important — like their guts, or their hearts, or all their ambition.

 

*

 

And if he’s lost his temper with Ernesto, then Imelda figures it’s only a matter of time before Héctor’s patience with her frays, too, and it does, a week later.

He’s hunched over his desk, counting pesos, and she can tell with a quick glance over his shoulder at the tables drawn up in his notebook that he’s trying to determine how much they’ll need once they’re on the road again, how much of the rest will stay here or go to the church — if that’ll give them any cushion at all.

No family with three horses is poor, not by any measurement, and Imelda may never want to see another Consequela again but they at least let her have this — but it isn’t getting any cheaper, either, and now they’ve got Coco.

Sympathy makes her reach out.

“Or,” she says with a hand on his shoulder, where the starched collar of his shirt refuses to flatten. “We do not have to go.”

There’s a beat.

He sets his pencil down and leans back, dislodging her hand.

“I thought,” he shades his eyes with his hand, squeezing at his temples. “That you enjoyed traveling as much as we did.”

“I do! I’m not saying we shouldn’t, I’m saying —” she looks around. “I’m saying I’ve put a lot of work into the pueblo. And you’ve got to know how lucky we are to even have a place this size, so why leave it?”

He drops his hand. “Lucky? Imelda, people died. We have this house because the people who owned it previously were slaughtered —“

“I know that!”

“— and they practically had to give them away to make anyone want to live in Santa Cecilia at all!”

“I don’t want to live here, I never did, but nobody asked for my opinion. Someone made that decision for me!”

“You just said — !”

Héctor cuts off, breathing hard, and they glare at each other.

“So what do you want?” he says finally. “Do you want to go? Do you want to stay?”

“I want to go,” Imelda bites out. “But I’m saying, if the money is a problem, we do not have to go. If we have to stay here longer, save up, then that would be fine.”

“You,” he points a finger up at her face. “Are the most contrary person I have ever met.”

You knew that already, Imelda thinks. You wrote a song about it.

“You tell me one thing, then another, and I never know what you want or what’s going to set you off, and — ”

Okay, but you wrote a song about it!

“— planning around you is a nightmare. Usually I find it amazing that you contain so many contrary desires but right now — “

Imelda explodes. “It’s because I want everything!”

At his look of shock, she spins on her heel, pressing the backs of her hands to her eyes. She pants until she thinks she has the breath to speak, and then it comes out of her all at once.

“You know what that’s like, you have to — I want to have it all. I want to sing on stage, I want to sing here to our baby at night, I want to learn to play the trumpet so I don’t have to sing at all. I want every sunrise, every sunset, every cloud forest and desert and bad mezcal and poisonous patch of mesquite. I want you to write this song and that one, I want Ernesto here and I want him far away, I want to stay and go, I want you on your back and then on your belly, and if I’m contrary it’s because we don’t have time for everything I want and I’m struggling to prioritize!”

“Imelda …”

She looks at him, saying in a voice ragged and leaking, “You don’t think it doesn’t drive me loco as much as it does you?”

Héctor surges out of his chair, his arms coming up and around her without hesitation. She makes a hard, stifled noise, and he pulls her in so tight his shirt buttons dig into her skin, and tucks his cheek down against her forehead.

“You want this?” It comes out barely above a whisper.

“All the time,” Imelda answers, muffled. “I want every second so that we can live. And I’m … sorry, Héctor, if I ever made you believe anything else.”

He pulls back, putting her hands under her jaw and lifting her head up so he can look at her. Her face, now exposed, feels blotchy and over-warm, like she’s about to start crying, and she rolls her eyes at him — affection, displays of emotion. Still gross!

But he just tugs her up, kissing her soft and true.

“Imelda,” he murmurs. “My wife.”

“You always say yes to me,” she says. “You — you always — “

You wrote a song about it.

“Because I want you to have everything,” he says, as immediate as his hug. “Everything you just said, I want you to have it.”

Her breath hitches.

This time, the kiss catches, drags, and then flares like a match struck against paper.

Héctor steps them backwards, and Imelda all but stands on his feet so she can kiss him again, her hands clutching him close. She feels needy, greedy, and as always — full of desire to do things she’d never thought she’d want to do, like keep a husband and love him too.

“What was that one?” Héctor asks, hoarse and up against her mouth. “About having me on my stomach?”

“Back first,” she drags his shirt out of his pants, rucking it up. “And then we can call Ernesto in to put you on your stomach — unless you want him on his?”

And he moans.

 

*

 

Cattle drive season springs on them just as the current construction project wraps up, and most of the men beat the dust off their neckerchiefs, retie them, and hire out to the biggest ranches to get to work branding cattle.

Imelda’s men come home on the last day, sweeping their hats from their heads.

They call her name until she appears. She stands under the cross hammered into the doorframe, looks at them looking back at her giddy with excitement, and begins to smile.

They sell the chickens (except for the two speckled hens, which Imelda gifts to los Esposito, the furniture-makers, in thanks for Rosita’s assistance during Coco’s birth. She jokes, too, that they should wring the stupidest one and leave it for the cat, who had also been invaluable.)

They board up the well. They lock the gate.

They leave flowers and a little toy horse on the gravestone with Héctor’s family’s names.

Then Imelda saddles up her mare, straps Coco to her back, and they join Gabriel, and they go north.

 

*

 

Chicharrón, when he isn’t herding cattle, sells interesting trinkets out of the back of his wagon and so has a habit of collecting oddments for young children.

He has none of his own, he says, and prefers it that way.

“They’re much better secondhand,” he squints up at Imelda knowingly. “All these cowhands, I’ve got plenty of babies to kiss and spoil but none of the responsibility.”

“Cheech!” Héctor says reprovingly, and Chicharrón shakes loose a raspy laugh.

He gives Coco a rattle made from a turtle’s shell, which Imelda approves of, and a child-sized necklace strung with rat skulls, which she most emphatically does not.

“No,” she pries the eye sockets out of Coco’s grasping fingers. “What are you thinking.”

She passes the necklace to her husband, since skulls are more his thing.

Chicharrón lifts his hat off his head, scrubbing at the sparse tumbleweed collection of hair underneath. “Well, one child made happy, at least,” because Héctor has, in fact, spun on his rump on the ground to interrupt Ernesto’s conversation, too eager to show him to wait. “Now, I’m sure I’ve got something for you.”

“I don’t need a present,” protests Imelda, who very much wants a present.

It’s another skull. A snake this time, stripped clean and left to lie so long that the bones are nearly translucent, blue-tinged like it’s absorbed too much sky. Imelda’s fascinated by the fangs, hugely oversized in comparison to the rest of it.

“I can’t keep this,” she says reluctantly — it will get smashed to bits in her pack.

“Then I’ll hold onto it,” Chicharrón says without hesitation. “You can visit it every time we pass through. It’ll be ole Imelda’s pet snake.”

She smiles. “Thanks, Cheech.”

More importantly, they’ve got new music to try out, and an anticipatory silence descends over the camp as Ernesto and Héctor untie their guitar cases from their packs. Beyond them, the sundry wildlife continue their shrieking existence, the insects trying to out-compete each other and the cattle lowing peaceably, but inside, everyone waits. Old-timers like Gabriel nudge the fresh faces into attention, the kind of thing Imelda never tires of: you’re in for a treat, they’re saying.

They start out with the old folk songs, “Gloria” and “Cielito Lindo” and “La Llorona,” then move on to what’s newer, more popular, and then what is theirs alone, until the cowboys are shouting, whistling, tossing their hats — carried away the way only really good music can do to you.

Coco gets bounced between her godfathers, Gabriel and Ernesto squabbling about it good-naturedly, and when Chicharrón takes over, Héctor pulls Imelda to her feet.

It’s all the sign they need.

They criss-cross Oaxaca like they’re performing a jarabe, visiting all the familiar faces, rejoicing in their joys and commiserating with their misfortunes. Everywhere they go, Coco gets kissed and fussed and cooed over, and if Imelda was worried there’d be nobody to watch her baby while they’re on stage, she’s sorely mistaken.

And the singing is nice, she thinks, but none it holds a candle to the moment right afterward, when she’s got her daughter in her arms again and she can take all that love, all that feeling, and plant it right in her with a kiss to the top of her head.

Héctor’s arms come around her waist, and as Ernesto swings into full glad-handing mode behind them, because someone should, she murmurs, “Hello, Coco. We’re your parents.”

“We’re famous musicians,” Héctor adds. “You think so, right?”

She vocalizes in a passably mimicking way.

“See!” he says triumphantly, and Imelda elbows him.

They crib together groups and pass through mountains, descend into canyons and cross valleys, waving to the ranchers and pilgrims and farmers. In the lowlands, they pass fields of corn and sugarcane, the scrubby tops of pineapples, papayas and peppers, huge avocado trees shading the harvesters underneath. In the highlands, the land’s been logged to make room for orchards of apples, peaches, and quince, pockets of land terraced with difficulty out of the mountain slopes. There are signs, too, that no one waited for President Carranza to sign a reform into action and took the land back from the commercial landowners themselves, trying to slow the desertification that’s ruining their fields — Imelda swears there isn’t as much dust kicked off the hardpan as there had been the last time she came through. Mexico is trying to heal.

No matter their crop, the farmers do their work in pairs; one to manage the equipment and the other to protect them, clutching pitchforks or muskets forty years out of date. They only relax when they realize there’s no threat in three musicians and a baby.

There are, however, more trains than there ever were before, and they stop every time one passes them by, pulling their hats from their heads out of respect, because you never know which ones carry the rebel dead.

The roads are still controlled by those rebels in some places; rag-tag armies operating out of lean-tos and abandoned train cars, who don’t seem to have gotten the message that the war’s over, that Carranza’s got the president’s seat and he’s going to do what he damn well pleases, that there simply aren’t enough bodies left to put up a fight about it. Pancho Villa’s army has stopped operating in the south entirely.

“We’re not going there!” Imelda says in horror, when Ernesto mentions Cuernavaca in passing. That’s Zapata’s stronghold!

“Not even to see Cortés’s palace?” he says wistfully.

“No!”

Three days after that, they get shot at.

They’re just warning shots, and it’s all already over before Imelda even registers that she should be alarmed — and then Coco starts crying and her body floods with belated adrenaline. She twists in her saddle, but there’s nothing to stab this time.

After beating a hasty retreat, Héctor fingers the charred edges of the hole in his sleeve, waggles it around and says, “That’s odd, I don’t remember the zapatistas being that way. I wonder what changed.”

It’s a rhetorical question. They all know what’s changed: Zapata is losing.

They take more care avoiding the soldiers, after that. Ernesto keeps his theatrical facial expressions well-rehearsed during long hours on horseback by practicing on Coco, schooling himself into angelic innocence whenever Imelda gets suspicious with all the giggling and looks over her shoulder. They sleep in the same shabby inns, all of them too tired to be more circumspect, collapsed on the same bed with Héctor squeezed in the middle, one hand protectively stretched over Coco to make sure none of them roll on her in the middle of the night. Imelda isn’t used to it, waking up with Ernesto warm against her back to see her husband already awake, boiling water with their daughter in his arms, singing to her all frog-voiced with sleep.

Other times, they camp out under a wide thrown-open sky.

Imelda keeps her hand tucked into Coco’s sling and her eyes turned up, feeling like a mirror positioned just so, something inside of her so expansive it stretches from horizon to horizon.

“All right?” Héctor mumbles, sleepily nudging her shoulder with his nose.

“Tired,” she answers, because she always is, now. “But happy.”

Lit only by starlight, his eyes crinkle at her.

“Me, too,” he confesses, soft.

 

*

 

In April, 1919, Emiliano Zapata is double-crossed and killed in his home state of Morelos. They parade his body through Cuaulta, which Imelda remembers almost nothing about despite having done a show there once; she and Ernesto were two days from having just killed a man themselves, then.

With the body thus displayed, the assassins wait to collect their bounty, eager to be rewarded as the ones who removed President Carranza’s most vocal opponent from play.

They get only half the amount they were promised.

And though he does not know it, Carranza’s days are numbered.

 

*

 

By agreement, Imelda and her new family return to Santa Cecilia for November through January.

It’s not a waste of time, whatever Ernesto says: Christmas is always a time for family, which means parties, which means music and bands to hire for Las Posada, so she and her men are never without a job. And it’s nice to be in the house again, to see her bathtub and that familiar blue tile, to put Coco to sleep in a real crib instead of a sling.

In time, Imelda stops thinking of it as a furlough, and starts missing it when she’s not there.

 

*

 

When Coco is two, and no longer easily strapped to her back, she suggests they adjust their routine.

That year, they do their tour without her.

It’s no easier to let them go this time than it had been when the Jalisco musician had come south, but Coco is wriggling, loudly inquisitive, and has just discovered her ability to grab things and bolt, and Imelda’s having enough difficulty keeping her out of danger when she’s at home, she cannot imagine trying to do that and travel at the same time. Not without …

Well, not without the assistance of an extensive family.

“But why should you have to stay behind?” Héctor asks, baffled. “You’re the one who loves the open road the most!”

Imelda falters — it’s still startling, even now, to be known like that — then regains her stride. “Who else is going to do it? It’s not forever. Just until Coco’s a little older, and can come with us.”

She regrets it almost as soon as she loses sight of the horses.

She knows she’s being smart, but it’s hard not to resent that she has to be the smart one.

Ernesto would not have tolerated another year, or two or three, of stagnating in Santa Cecilia, but Imelda refused to put a mobile Coco at risk — no, not even for music — and neither of them wanted Héctor to be the tie-breaker, mostly because they were both afraid they’d be the ones to lose, and if that was the case, they didn’t want to know. So Imelda made the choice.

“I can make the hard decisions sometimes,” she tells the top of Coco’s head, once they’re done collecting the morning’s eggs from the henhouse. “It surprises people, but that’s because everyone used to treat me like a moron. They think if you make someone else look like the moron, it makes you seem smart in comparison.”

Coco turns her chin against Imelda’s leg so she can look up at her. She’s standing on top of her feet, so that she can pretend every one of Imelda’s steps is her own.

Imelda brushes a stray lock of Coco’s hair aside. “But that’s not going to happen to you. I swear it.”

They sing together. There’s a song for every chore, and a few more about the alphabet and what animals make what sounds and who’s who at Mass. It had been part of Héctor’s compromise with Ernesto, early on: he would practice whatever Ernesto wanted to practice, but the last fifteen minutes were always for Coco; all the old nursery rhymes, and some new ones Héctor made up on the spot, that Imelda found herself humming days later without meaning to.

This way, with her daughter around, the loneliness isn’t as crippling as it was last time.

She gets more visitors, too.

The worst of these is Jorge Guavarrez, a man her uncle’s age who’d served under General Alvaro Obregón in Carranza’s army during the war until Obregón got his arm blown off fighting the villistas in Guanajuato, at which point Jorge was dismissed with other nonessentials and returned to Santa Cecilia. These days, he rolls cigarettes in the market — Sister Lupe swears by him, says no one else gets the papers right — and hires himself out as a jack-of-all-trades.

He’d helped Imelda clean her oven once, and always stopped by after that to see if she needed anything.

What she thought were the considerate acts of a neighborly man swiftly turned into a nuisance, since he kept coming back, no matter how many times Imelda said she was fine, no, gracias, Jorge, to the point where she dreaded the sound of his voice at the gate: that chorus of “oh, señorita” — always señorita, he did it to the viejitas in the market, too, shamelessly feigning obtuseness to their marital status and then passing it off as flattery — “is anyone home?”

And honestly — a plague on anyone who could make Imelda wish to be called señora.

Worse, he always comes by when she’s alone. When he knows she’s alone, and his euphemisms stop being funny and start making Imelda worry about her reputation.

She can’t complain to anybody about it. He’s never laid a hand on her. She’s not worried that he will.

He doesn’t need to, that’s the point. Just his presence in her home is enough to make her every hair stand on end, uneasy and on guard against whatever he’s going to say next and how he’s going to leer it, and he knows it. That’s the part that’s fun for him.

Not all her visitors are bad, fortunately. Doña Esposito, Rosita’s mother, makes a point of seeking Imelda out after Mass — Imelda had assumed she wanted another body to help her with her charity group and went along willingly, but then weeks pass and she finds herself inside the gates of Casa Esposito, laughing and playing number games with Coco while they watch the Espositos work, and it occurs to her that she might be wrong. That maybe Rosita’s mother — who is only Ines’s age, but who has a command of whatever gathering she’s with that makes you call her “doña” whether you mean to or not — wants a friend.

“Did these used to be your stables?” she asks, looking around. Their pueblo has the same layout hers does, otherwise.

Doña Esposito adjusts her earrings, smiling. “It did! But we don’t have horses, so we converted it into a shop.”

Now they make furniture; dining chairs with woven backs, armchairs with rich upholstery that have to be kept out of the weather. Doña Esposito’s husband sells them all throughout the valley, and is also gone for weeks at a time. She recognized that unhappiness in Imelda before Imelda did.

So she comes by with this thinly-veiled excuse or that, until Imelda is forced to say, “I was just about to go to market, would you like to come with?” and she says, “Oh! I wouldn’t want to be a bother,” in a way that clearly means yes.

Somewhere along the line, Imelda stops tolerating this and starts enjoying it: she likes the three Esposito children, who take a shine to Coco and all the songs she teaches them. Rosita in particular is delighted to have another girl around, even if she’s just a toddler. Doña Esposito knows when something’s out of season, which Imelda, spoiled by access to the railway all her childhood, does not. And she loves the artesanías and their stalls; the puppet alebrijes on their strings, the shrines in a bottle to all the major saints, and without meaning to, Imelda finds herself admiring their beauty, too, simply because Doña Esposito does.

So she has them, and Yajaira the librarian comes through on his mule, bringing news from the capital which he delivers to a crowd of unsympathetic ears in Mariachi Plaza, and he always stops by the Rivera pueblo when he’s done.

“Soon you won’t need me anymore,” he remarks, waving Imelda off before she can get more feed for his mule and doing it himself, knocking loose particles off her grain scoop. “Didn’t I hear they’ve decided to connect Santa Cecilia to the railroad after all?”

”Ach. So they say!”

Imelda doesn’t want to talk about it.

It’s something to do with their central location, but she can’t help but feel it’s Díaz’s ghost, getting the last word over those sad dead maderistas.

“That’ll take years. I still want to see you even when we’re not the remote rural village you like so much,” she says, and his sideburns prop themselves up on his cheeks like they’re putting their elbows on the table, getting out of the way so he can smile at her. “You’re more reliable than the post, anyway.”

This is true. He crosses paths with her men more often than anyone else, and so brings her money on his visits, and letters addressed to Coco filled with those nonsense rhymes from Héctor that she loves, peppered with little drawings of monkeys and fish with big teeth (and arrows pointing to them, saying, that’s you!) that could only be Ernesto.

Imelda learns they hire another girl in Tuxtepec to be their singer — a war orphan with no family to raise a fuss about an unmarried girl haring off with the mariachi (since they can’t very well pull the same trick with her they did with Imelda — or at least, they better not pull the same trick they did with Imelda,) but that girl runs off on them as soon as they come down the rainy side of the Sierra Sur, where they once had to stop to rebuild the road after the mudslides took it out.

Maybe she got eaten by a jaguar, the letter says, and she hopes that glibness means they aren’t that worried about her.

After that, they join up with a singing troupe and visit all the port cities and pueblos negroes along the Costa Chica. Imelda holds that letter to her chest, swamped with the memory of the rocky coastline, its mesquite groves and fishermen, of the waving golden prairie outside La Ventosa and the thundering falls, feeling battered and homesick and aching, until Coco tugs her hands down, wanting to see her part of the letter, por favor, Mamá.

But that falls apart, too.

So May finds Héctor and Ernesto moored in Santa Cecilia again, a mere four months after they left.

 

*

 

It takes Héctor a long time to stop kissing her, and when he does the first thing out of his mouth is, “Where’s Coco?”

He lets go of her face and steps back, scanning around at knee-height, before swinging that radiant smile back to her. “Imelda? Where is she?”

Imelda had planned on being distant, for no real reason other than she was still resentful that he got to go and she didn’t (the fact that it was her idea has no bearing on how petty she wants to be,) and she wanted him to work to get back into her good graces simply to feel like she was worth the effort — but all of it went out the window the moment they came riding through the gate, dismounting inside the courtyard and calling her name.

She tips her head, a deliberate gesture.

Héctor cranes around and spots her. But when he starts in that direction, Imelda blocks his way.

“Don’t,” she warns him lowly. “That’s a hiding spot. She doesn’t want to be seen.”

“Why not?” he whispers back.

“It’s been months. She might not remember you.”

“What? Sure she does!” But then he hesitates, frowning.

“She’ll come around,” Imelda tells him, more magnanimously than she feels. “But you’ll have to give her a little time.”

“Here,” and that’s Ernesto, diligently unpacking their horses. He nudges Héctor’s side with his guitar case, which he then sets down on the ground next to him. Imelda flashes him a smile —

“Amigo!” Héctor whirls. “You know what we should do!”

“Hmm?”

“Get those headshots done. That way you and I will have copies to hand out, and one can stay here with Coco so she doesn’t forget what we look like!”

“Sure, if you like,” Ernesto says tiredly.

— and Imelda looks at him again, harder, scrutinizing.

Héctor’s not discouraged to be back much earlier than they’d planned. But then again, he wouldn’t be: for him, the joy of traveling was getting to meet new people and hear their music, and he says, “Oh, good, you won’t regret it,” and turns again to Imelda so he can gush about the troupe they met and the music on the Pacific Coast, oh, Imelda, you won’t believe —

“— that it’s an an instrument. Want to guess what they call it? The quijada.”

“I wouldn’t let him buy one,” Ernesto interjects. “I thought you might appreciate that. Morbid thing.”

“I wasn’t going to — honestly! A man expresses an interest in keeping a human skull one time,” Héctor says in aggravation. But it’s still shining out of him like electric lights from one of Pancho Villa’s three-minute films. “Mexicans live close enough to death that it’s our friend. We have —“

“— a whole holiday for it, I know. I know.”

And beside him, Ernesto is shabby, dimmed down. To him, this is defeat, coming home with his tail between his legs.

“You wouldn’t have liked it,” he tells her. “It’s all morenos in the pueblos negros.”

Ernesto!”

“She knows what I mean.”

“I knew what you meant,” Imelda says shortly, with a sudden self-conscious awareness that she hasn’t done her hair in awhile. It’s different, having to do it alone.

She means to pull him into the conversation after that, but then Héctor says, “oh!” and starts unlatching his guitar case, telling her, “Wait until you see this, it’s a flyer we saw at the crossing point, I thought you’d get a kick out of it —“

Except then he pops the lid open, and Coco scrambles out of her hiding spot.

“Papá!” she exclaims — first to the guitar, unmistakable in its appearance, and then to the man beside it.

She connects the two. Slowly, recognition begins to dawn on her face.

He drops to his knees without hesitation, smiling huge and sunny. “It can’t be — is that my Coco I see?”

Her face lights up, and she bolts for him.

Imelda stands to the side, wrapping her arms around herself and squeezing tight as Héctor sweeps Coco off her feet and swings her around. He kisses her face, over and over again, and when she vocalizes a protest, he tells her with exaggerated solemnity, “I have to. One hundred kisses, for every night I didn’t see you, that’s how this goes,” and keeps making kissy faces even when Coco puts her hands on his jaw and strains backwards, out of reach. Imelda feels flattened by it, sore with affection.

“Child, hey,” he complains, mouth smushed under Coco’s hands, and she shows teeth.

Imelda steps back, intending to fade away — the horses need stabling, and grooming, and to have their hooves and teeth checked, and oh, she missed them too — but Héctor reaches out and snags her.

Pulling her into the circle of his other arm, he catches her cheek against the palm of his hand. His thumb brushes every landmark, following the path of his eyes.

“Mother of my child,” he says, softer, with wonder.

All inclination towards aloofness vanishes. Imelda, ever contrary, reaches up to take his face in her hands and pushes their foreheads together, and they hold onto each other for a long time, the three of them, mute with relief at being reunited.

By the time she thinks to open her eyes and check, Ernesto’s long gone.

 

*

 

She’s fixing the backing on one of the gold hoops she inherited from the widow when she feels little hands pulling on her skirts.

Imelda glances down — they’re her best skirts, her Sunday skirts — just as Coco finishes wrapping herself up in them, cocooning herself completely. She smiles, setting the pliers down on the vanity and working the earring back into her ear.

“That’s done. Now all that’s left is to find my Coco!” she announces. “Where did my Coco go?”

She takes a few steps, then stops. The lump in her skirts shuffles along with her.

“I don’t see her. Papá — “ Héctor comes through the door just then, inspecting the sleeves of his Sunday jacket to make sure they pass muster. All the nosy viejitas will be judging him from their pews now that he’s back. “Have you seen my Coco?”

Héctor takes in the situation at a glance. His mouth pulls.

“I have not seen your Coco, Mamá,” he tells her gravely, as Imelda’s skirts twitch and giggle. “Where did you see her last?”

“She was right here!”

“Hmm,” and at her gesture, he comes near so she can fix his collar. When he stops in front of her, Coco whips the skirts aside and jumps at him with a shout. Héctor pretends to be felled by the attack, knocked back onto his rump. He gets a good grip and holds her out at arm’s length.

“Oh, there you are,” he says, as easily as if she’s something he’s misplaced, found again in a perfectly reasonable location after all.

Oh, there you are — like you are not always on my mind.

Coco laughs, and stretches her arms out.

 

*

 

The pinto mare swishes her tail contentedly and picks up her feet as they round the last bend towards home. Imelda pushes herself higher in the stirrups to make sure the gate is exactly as she left it — that her men haven’t gone out and locked it behind them, as they only have the one key — and sees Jorge Guavarrez lounging out front, instead.

She groans inwardly. It’s too late to pretend this wasn’t her destination. Nobody else lives out this far.

Jorge straightens up and gives her one of those sticky smiles.

“Buenos tardes, señorita,” he says, tipping his hat to her, then to Coco. “Señorita.”

“Señor Guavarrez,” Imelda says without enthusiasm.

She rides through the gate and dismounts outside the stables. As she leads the pinto in, the other mares toss their heads in greeting. She plucks Coco from the saddle and sets her on her feet, telling her, “go inside, mija, I’ll be there in a moment.”

Normally, her need to keep Coco close (she’s only two) outweighs her trepidation about having her out in the stables, where there are simply too many sharp objects around for comfort — and that’s before you consider the horses themselves — but she doesn’t want Coco and Jorge Guavarrez in the same place a moment longer than necessary.

“I’ve got to ask, señorita,” Jorge’s saying, watching Coco determinedly toddle up to the house. “How come you haven’t had any more?”

“Any more what?”

The pinto flicks her tail again, nosing around hopefully for food.

“Children. That girl’s getting older. Most people would have had another one by now.”

Imelda flinches, then steps around her horse to hide the expression on her face, because damn if that’s not a sore spot and he just stuck his elbow right into it. He’s right: she hasn’t conceived again, despite making no attempt to avoid it, and it’s getting to the point where she can’t call it a coincidence anymore. Her monthlies haven’t changed; they’re as unreliable as ever.

Maybe … maybe the baby she lost wasn’t the exception. Maybe it’s the rule, and she was lucky to have Coco at all.

After all, it’s not like anybody talked to her about it.

She works the feeling from her throat.

“Carrying children isn’t easy for me,” is what she settles on, hoping any implication of female troubles will be enough to deter him from questioning further.

No luck.

His teeth peek in her direction. “Just checking — your husband does know where everything goes, right?”

Jorge,” Imelda says sharply.

He chortles, flapping a hand at her. “Oh, lighten up, lighten up, it was a joke.”

Slinging his arms over the stall door, he leans his weight on it and rocks it back and forth. The hinges creak in protest. The pinto lays her ears flat; the sound makes her nervous. She works her mouth and spits her bridle into Imelda’s hand. Imelda hums, trying to be soothing, wondering how soon she can get rid of Jorge without furthering a reputation for being rude.

“I’m glad he’s back, of course,” he continues, oblivious. “It just hurts me to see you wasted on him.”

“That’s enough.”

All three of the horses lift their heads in response to her tone, but Jorge just widens his eyes at her, feigning innocence — he’s going to say his piece and he’s going to get away with it. She can’t be offended, he’s only joking!

Oh, she hates him.

“You should have a real man, señorita. No — no, I would never suggest it, I’m not a boor, but — ay, I hear that some girls need to have it given to them good, need it on the regular.”

Backing herself into the stall with the horse was a bad idea, Imelda realizes suddenly. There’s nowhere to go, and Jorge Guavarrez of all rotten people is blocking her exit. He wags his eyebrows at her. “You know what I’m talking about, right? These girls, they don’t get picky about who they get it from. I’m just saying, if your fellow hares off again — if you need it, I’m here for you.”

It is, she realizes at once, one of those propositions that corners her verbally as neatly as she is physically. If she says no, your offer is insulting, she’s fine, then she confirms that she’s one of those women regardless of whether or not Héctor satisfies her. But if she says she isn’t one of those women, then he’ll take it to mean she doesn’t get it on the regular. Then Héctor becomes the mocked party, and her too for seemingly being unable to entice him.

There’s no way to win.

Working her jaw, she searches for an answer. The longer the silence from her stretches, the more teeth Jorge shows.

She wants to hit him. Backhand him across the face.

He knows what he’s backed her into. He thinks it’s fun.

“I can wait,” he offers, magnanimous. “Let you do a comparison. You are too beautiful, señorita, to be the wife of someone like him. Everyone says it, you know. He’s too much of a wife himself, if you know what I mean.”

And Imelda’s rage flips over into terror, just like that.

It’s just a joke, it’s just a joke, he doesn’t know anything, but it doesn’t stop the surge of adrenaline that almost brings her blood right off her bones, a sudden hyperawareness, like she’s standing just an inch to the side of her own body.

“Everyone’s not saying that,” she hears herself say. “You’re the only one saying that.”

“Why would I lie?” Jorge says, lying.

He might not be serious now, but how does she stop him from repeating it so that it doesn’t become serious? Imelda learned her lesson about joking about other people’s proclivities the hard way, her husband’s especially, and if there’s one thing Michoacán taught her, it’s how dangerous one man’s joke can become. She doesn’t want to creep out of Santa Cecilia at the crack of dawn. She likes it here.

Before she can do anything more than swallow around the lump in her throat, something moves in the shadows behind him. A face appears.

It is still, hard-eyed, incandescent with rage. There’s a beat where Imelda does not recognize him.

Except —

That’s not true, is it. She knows that look.

He looked at her uncle like that once, and — her blood runs cold — and once in Michoacán. It’s how he looked standing inside a ring of villistas, seeing Héctor brought to him pale and smeared with blood.

Ernesto de la Cruz looks at Jorge with murder in his eyes.

Another shift. Her third head looks right at her.

I want that man out of my home, Imelda tries to tell him with her eyes on his. I want him away from us.

The next beat, it smooths away like it never was, and he steps into the light. He’s got Coco crooked into the elbow of one arm — she must have found him first, and he came to investigate — and the other he slings around Jorge’s shoulder in a jocular way.

“Hola, amigo,” he says, and Jorge chokes, eyes going big. Ernesto gives him a playful shake and he’s helpless to stop it, confronted with those big bricklaying shoulders and arms. Imelda doesn’t think Jorge makes a habit of confronting people bigger than him; it wouldn’t be as fun. “How about we leave the little lady to her chores and you let me buy you a drink?”

“Um,” squeaks Jorge.

Oh, yes, Imelda thinks, coming forward to take Coco when Ernesto wordlessly extends her to her. You can tell him all about your theories on what Héctor’s like in bed. See where it gets you.

Ernesto pulls him away without waiting for an answer, and she doesn’t see him again until the next morning.

He comes in from the yard, yawning and combing his fingers through his forelock until it starts looking tousled instead of just unkempt. He says good morning and then points at the pan de yema on her plate, leftover from the last wedding they sung at.

“You going to finish that?” The question cracks around another yawn.

She makes a noise, then asks, “How’s your new friend?”

And Ernesto —

Steps around her, drops his head, and kisses the top of her bare shoulder.

Imelda freezes in shock.

It’s nothing like how he’ll kiss her hand or her cheek sometimes after a good performance (a showy kind of kiss,) and nothing like how he kissed her in bed (definitely a showy kind of kiss.) He’s only kissed her like this once before: in the complete stillness of an empty church. She’d still been in her wedding dress. She can feel his eyelashes when he closes his eyes and leans into her.

Then he’s gone.

“Won’t be a problem,” he says, while Imelda’s still blinking at him, stunned. “We’re even now.”

 

*

 

And he’s right.

Imelda never sees Jorge Guavarrez again.

 

*

 

By the time she gets the last dish out to the table, the oil hot enough to hiss in protest and the chiles still popping and leaping about, the conversation’s shifted, and it takes her a moment to realize they’re talking about China — somewhere else Imelda hadn’t ever really realized existed as a place until recently, despite having met Chinese people. Yajaira had maps.

“What about the students?” She waves the flies away and sets the pan down.

Coco leans in eagerly to see what all the noise is about, and vocalizes a protest when Héctor reels her back into his lap, saying, no, mija, don’t touch, it’s hot.

“They’ve mobilized against their government,” Yajaira answers.

Imelda’s eyebrows pop up.

“Oh,” she says, and eases into her seat, still considering this. “Were they killed?”

“No, they wanted it to be peaceful. Marches, banners — only a little looting,” and oh, that’s better, that makes sense. Imelda can’t wrap her head around what a protest would look like without violence. “After they were arrested and jailed, it sparked further protests and workers’ strikes all over the country. I have the article here if you want to —”

“Why students?” Ernesto’s baffled. “When I think uprising, I think soldiers, not schoolboys and their books.”

“But students are always learning!” Imelda retorts.

“I know that, but —“

“No, no,” she cuts him off. “It makes perfect sense. If you give people schooling, you give them the tools they need to dissect and label their lives and the society they live in, and they’re going to find the places where it doesn’t work.”

Yajaira, who’d opened his mouth, closes it again and points at her.

“Why do you think my family made sure I never learned anything but horses and childcare?” Imelda continues. “Why they were so upset when my brothers got an apprenticeship that wasn’t those things? They didn’t want us thinking about our situation!”

She slaps her hand flat on the table, rounding on the librarian.

“That’s why you cannot trust anyone that does not support education — they only reason they have for not allowing it is because they want you in the dark about something.”

“You don’t have to tell me, señora, I know that,” he tells her earnestly. “But you can tell him.”

He points again, and they all turn.

For the fourth time, Héctor grabs Coco’s hand and pretends to devour it with a ravenous noise. She shrieks with delight and yanks it free, inspecting it curiously. Finding it intact, all fingers accounted for, she promptly extends it again to see what he’ll do, which is, of course, to pretend to eat it again. Her eyes flare wide, astonished, in that moment she truly believes her father will eat her hand and it will be gone.

Slowly becoming aware of the silence, Héctor looks up to find them all looking at him.

“What?” he says, visibly unraveling the conversation backwards.

Imelda, Ernesto, and Yajaira all exchange looks.

“Héctor,” says Yajaira. “You are twenty years old.”

A puzzled frown over Coco’s head. “Sí.”

“You are named, and you own this land.”

“Sí.”

Yajaira reaches into his lockbox and pulls out a broadsheet. Imelda only catches a glimpse of the block lettering along the top — Presidential Election — before he turns it and lays it down in front of them.

Smiling, he says, “You are eligible to vote.”

Héctor and Coco blink once, then blink again. He opens his mouth to speak, but Coco beats him to it — her eyes go wide, and then she sneezes directly on the document.

“… Well,” says Yajaira, as everyone laughs.

 

*

 

In May, 1920, three-fourths of the nation’s army rise up in revolt.

As they close in on Mexico City, President Carranza flees in the dead of night.

The train takes him to Veracruz, but the rebels get to him first. Sabotage on the tracks maroons him in Puebla, and when the long-time military ally he’d been relying on closes his borders, Carranza heads into the mountains on foot. No one’s quite sure what the plan was, where he was trying to go — but the way all men do when the end is coming, he was moving north, towards home.

It takes less than a day for the rebels to overtake him, and in the same mountains where Imelda had been born, they kneel him down and shoot him through the head.

 

*

 

Once, when Imelda and her men had been at the edge of the city of Guanajuato on their way to somewhere that was not Guanajuato, they came across a sinkhole.

They never learned what caused it. Weakness in the earth, maybe — from the unsustainable farming practices during the Porfiriato, or repeated flooding into the basin from the Rio Lerma? — but the size of it had almost been impossible to comprehend. It was miles across, dented into the landscape as if a giant fist punched it out of plaster. Roads disappeared at its edges, and rows of houses simply ended where the sinkhole began, looking for all the world like they’d always stopped there.

There’d been no warning, no time to prepare. The ground was, until it simply wasn’t.

It’s the same feeling Imelda gets, in the days after Carranza’s assassination.

She wakes one morning, early enough the sky is still the color of cotton, pre-dawn grey with puffy clouds poking up like they’d been plucked from a seed pod. For one bleary moment, she has no idea what woke her, and then she hears the shouting.

It’s unmistakable. There are few things in this world that sound like an army does.

Wide awake now, she swings herself silently out of bed. She glances sideways only long enough to determine she was alone in it.

Rising up, poised on her tiptoes, she listens.

She doesn’t know whose army this could be — Obregón’s? Those Díaz brothers who’d set themselves up in Oaxaca City like peacocks, hoping to bring back their uncle’s legacy? — but she’d been expecting something like this. They’ll blaze through Santa Cecilia on their way to or from somewhere else, and if Carranza’s death means the start of another war, anyone’s hometown could be a casualty.

Growing up in San Juan Albán, where the trains came through, Imelda lived with that fear her whole life.

And then she hears it —

“Check it!”

“Yes, sir!”

It takes a single heartbeat to fly across the room, and another to get to Coco’s.

A third heartbeat, lifting the covers.

A realization: the crib is empty.

A fourth, a fifth, and then she’s in Ernesto’s room.

There they are: Ernesto, and Héctor too, and at some point during the night they must have allowed Coco to crawl in there with them, because she’s squeezed herself into the space between their pillows, curled around her stuffed sheep with its button eyes. Her rump’s mashed against the side of Ernesto’s head, and the three of them are profoundly, unattractively asleep.

Imelda exhales.

Her heart thumps. Six seconds.

The quilt’s been shoved down to the foot of the bed. She grabs it on her way past, fans it open, and crawls in with them.

“Shh, shh,” she whispers frantically, as the men startle awake at once with unwitting vocalizations. And, “soldiers. On raid.”

Comprehension sharpens in their faces, in the dawn light reflected off their eyes.

Ernesto tries to sit up. “The horses — !”

“Too late!” Imelda blocks him, and pushes them all down to lie as flat against the mattress as possible, pulling the quilt up over their heads. It cocoons them in darkness, and silence. Coco shifts, bumps her heels against Imelda’s head, but the rhythm of her breathing doesn’t change.

They lay there and wait, mouths dry, blood throbbing in their ears.

This room was made to be overlooked. That’s why Ernesto picked it, so it wouldn’t be the first place anyone would think to stick their head if they got curious. With any luck, they won’t be found.

Ernesto lets a breath out, slow.

“We shouldn’t be here,” he grits from between his teeth, pitched low. “We shouldn’t be cowering under the covers like women.”

“Shut up!” Imelda hisses, one arm still barred across his chest.

“I’m serious, you can’t expect me to just lie here and let them take our horses and our valuables, blast it, let me up, I’m going to defend us even if you don’t!”

“No, you are not —“

“— you hypocrite, you stopped the horse thief in Michoacán but now you won’t?”

“That was different!” Imelda insists.

“There is a time to seize a moment and this is not it,” Héctor adds in a furious whisper. “We’ve got a baby here, that changes everything.”

“No, it —“

Imelda bares her teeth, struggling to keep him down.

“Will you just — !”

“— doesn’t —“

“If you have ever loved me,” Héctor’s voice does something she’s never heard it do before. “Then you will hold still.”

Ernesto stops moving.

And not a moment too soon: those are hoofbeats coming through the gate, and boots running to meet them. One of the hens yells at them indignantly.

“Well?” says a soldier’s voice. He must be the mounted one.

Whatever the reply is, Imelda doesn’t hear it, because Coco picks that moment to stir.

“Papá?”

Sleepy, high-pitched, too loud. Imelda’s heart ricochets into her throat and Ernesto hisses like a goose, but Héctor gets there first, hand snapping out and snatching Coco’s foot, covering for it with a reassuring squeeze. Then he moves his hand up to her shoulder, her head.

It leaves Imelda almost squashed into his armpit, but through the static in her ears she hears him say, “Shh, Coco, can we be quiet? It’s Mamá, she’s here — sleeping. Let’s be quiet like mice for her, okay?”

He moves his hand, pats the top of Imelda’s head to demonstrate. After some wriggling, Coco gets herself turned around so she can give Imelda a kiss right where the part in her hair shows. Good night, Mamá.

Then, she holds herself very, very still, and does not make a sound, and waits for her cue to move again.

 

*

 

The soldiers don’t take the horses.

They don’t take the instruments, either, or the money and jewelry in Héctor and Imelda’s room.

In fact, the only thing they take is the food.

The kitchen’s been stripped clean of everything Imelda had prepared, that morning’s eggs swiped but the hens themselves left alone. The tile’s filthy, tracked over and over with muddy bootprints, and one of the portraits on the wall’s been knocked off, leaving only her parents’ Madonna and the Juárez behind to survey the situation.

Imelda picks up the broken frame and frees the photograph from it — herself, Héctor, Ernesto, in costume — and sets it aside so she can sweep up the glass.

“I don’t like it,” she can hear Ernesto muttering as he restlessly roams from room to room. “Men aren’t made to be cowards.”

“Ernesto.” That’s Héctor. “Come stand with me for a moment.”

A pause.

Ernesto’s boots grumpily clomp across the tile.

“¡Hola!” Coco’s voice says, delighted.

“I want you to stand right here with me and count our blessings.”

Bah —“

“No, I’m serious. Start with the big ones.”

“What are the big ones?” Ernesto’s voice asks, making it clear he’s just being indulgent.

Coco answers first, but Héctor’s voice soon takes over from her. “We’ve been blessed with light, with warmth, with water. With a roof over our heads, a place to bathe and a place to eat, a place to stable our horses and a place to sleep. We’ve been blessed with a town nearby, where we will go to see if everyone’s all right, if there’s anything left for us to eat.”

“— to eat!” Coco echoes.

Ernesto offers, “With music.”

“— and our own two feet, to carry us where the music wants to be. With eyes and mouth and —“

“Compadre, if we go in that direction, we’ll be here forever.”

“That’s exactly my point. Men aren’t absences, Ernesto, of all the things we didn’t say and didn’t do. If we look at it like that, we’ll never be enough — we’ll always be chasing ourselves. Do you understand me? All our blessings are already here. You. Me. Imelda. Coco. All right?”

“All right,” Ernesto says, low.

A kiss must follow, or something similar, because Coco pipes up, “I want to too! Let me!”

And Imelda pictures it perfectly: Héctor lifting Coco up so she can put both her hands on Ernesto’s face and bestow upon him a sticky, little-kid kiss.

“Gracias, sea serpent,” Ernesto tells her, with dignity.

 

*

 

“The Blessing Song” is the first of what becomes a nightly ritual for Héctor and Coco, of singing to each other before they go to sleep. There’s a lot of room for improvisation, and interesting new rhymes. If Héctor’s not there, Coco comes to her mother, waiting politely for Imelda to turn to her and say, “yes, Coco?” before asking if she would please write something down, so she can give it to Papá at bedtime, so she doesn’t forget.

 

*

 

The forty-third great compromise of Héctor and Imelda’s marriage is this: this time, when they go back on the road, it’s not for nine months out of twelve.

Instead, they take the train.

Because they take the train, Héctor and Ernesto come home more frequently. Because they take the train, sometimes Imelda comes with them, and Coco too. Because they take the train, they can go further afield, to places it would take weeks to get to by horse.

That’s new audiences and new opportunities for Ernesto, new exposure to different kinds of music for Héctor, new places that would burrow into Imelda’s heart like moss if she lets them.

“But we’re Oaxacan,” she feels like she has to make the token protest. “The railroad is a sell-out and we’re not sell-outs.”

Ernesto shakes his jacket out and throws it over the table so he can take his measuring tape to it, and says around the pins in his mouth, “We’ve figured it out. Tell her.”

With a soft admonishment, Héctor sets down the hairbrush he’s using on Coco and fetches the pincushion.

He leaves it by Ernesto’s elbow before turning to Imelda, saying, “The history of Oaxaca is taking the bones of what our conquerors left us and making it our own. Underneath everything, we’re turquoise and gold. Turquoise,” this is to Coco, lilting, as he resumes tying off the second braid. “And gold.”

She mushes the first word up but manages the second.

“Turquoise and go-ooold,” comes from Ernesto’s bent head, and he adds a high note, partially to show off, partially because Coco tries to mimic him and it sounds like the squeaking of a rusty faucet.

Their laughter startles her, but then she beams.

“Turquoise and gold,” Imelda agrees, bringing the note back down again, and then, “but I don’t see how you can stick it to Díaz while using Díaz’s railroad.”

“Because we’re common.” Héctor brings Coco over to say good-night. “And Díaz didn’t think the railroad was for common people.”

Imelda accepts Coco’s kiss and thinks of Gabriel, whose toast for longevity was always, God grant you a long life, so that you may meet the thing that will change your mind.

They take the train.

 

*

 

She takes two lunches and leaves them on the sideboard, but when church bell rings at noon and there’s a commotion from the horses, it’s only Héctor and a single mare in the courtyard. No Ernesto. Shrugging, she sits down to eat the second lunch, elbows held out so the juices don’t drip onto her skirts.

Five minutes becomes ten, and Héctor’s cazuela remains untouched, no longer leaking steam from under the second plate she’d used as a lid. The pueblo is quiet — even the hens, even the cypress tree, and especially Coco, whose excitement at seeing the men at the gate is a much more overt version of Imelda’s own and hard to suppress. If her father’s home and she’s not shouting about it, something’s up.

With a frown, she dries her hands and goes to investigate.

Héctor’s in the bedroom, collapsed slant-wise on their blankets, and Imelda takes one look at the slice of face she can see, the clammy pallor of it, and knows that he won’t be returning to work when the afternoon shift whistle blows.

Wordlessly, trying not to be obvious about it, she crosses to the desk and pulls out the account book. They’d juggled once already, when they’d all been sick off bad flour last week and lost pay then, and she’d hoped she wouldn’t have to do it again so soon, but with Héctor’s constitution being what it is, that’s not a safe bet. Money coming in has been inconsistent; money goes out, however, at the same steady rate it always has.

A soft noise from behind her interrupts her thoughts. Coco has joined Héctor on the bed, knees drawn up and body contorted so that her face and her father’s are on the same level.

“— Papá?”

“That’s me,” Imelda hears Héctor murmur back. “Do you want to take a nap with me, Coco?”

Coco doesn’t waste time considering this.

“No.” She wriggles towards the edge of the bed so she can get down.

“Too late,” and she protests loudly when Héctor snags her around the waist and reels her back in. He tucks her against his chest, weighing her down. “Nope, we’re napping now.”

“Papá!”

“Nope, you’re stuck. Sorry. Nap time, Coco.”

They continue in that vein for a while, but when Imelda closes the account book and slides it back into it’s slot, it’s quiet again.

She rises, cutting another look in that direction — Coco’s nestled securely in place, face mashed into Héctor’s shirt (which is shabby, she notices, because Ernesto’s let the mending pile up. She makes a mental note to remind him that they can’t perform in threadworn clothing.) But his eyes are open over the top of her head, watchful.

“I’m sorry, mi amor,” he says, a wealth of misery in his voice.

He hadn’t been fooled. He knew what she was doing.

And Imelda —

Knows this argument. An argument between yourself and your own self-doubt is still an argument, and she’s been finishing these the same way for years.

She crosses to the window, twitching the curtain aside.

“Héctor, tell me what color you think the sky is.”

His eyes flick in that direction, then crinkle at the corners. He doesn’t need to ask where she’s going with that, either.

“As long as the sky stays blue, this is where I want to belong,” she tells him briskly. “Here. To you.”

“At night —“

“The night sky is just a very, very dark shade of blue. You can’t weasel out that easily.”

“What about when it’s orange or pink or red?” he presses. She can see his teeth now, grinning at her. “What happens if the sky is red, Imelda?”

She throws her hands up.

“Ay, then you’re his problem. That’s why we take turns, I’m not a saint,” and leaves to the sound of his rusty laughing.

 

*

 

Their luck shifts.

Two weeks after that, they get booked to play for a wedding in town, and when the night’s over, Héctor watches from the doorway to their bedroom as Imelda pulls the pins from her hair. She digs her nails into her scalp, sighing in relief and tugging at the hairstyle until it falls loose. She hadn’t combed it in the right direction before putting it up, and the whole day her head hurt like wearing a hat wrong.

“Did you go in to see Coco?” she asks him, because he’s still lounging against the doorframe. And then, on a rising note, “Did you get her all riled up? I just got her to sleep!”

“She’s asleep, she’s asleep,” Héctor assures her.

He’s got a languid smile, full of low-lidded swampy heat, like a humid day in the Sierra Sur that makes you want to nap. His mouth’s sloppy, spread about in a way Imelda’s becoming increasingly aware of. She feels it, like someone’d left something to burn in the pit of her stomach.

He pushes himself off the doorframe and comes forward.

She watches out of the corner of her eye as he reaches inside his vest — and removes several small, folded bills, which he places on the stand by Imelda’s elbow.

It’s like getting gut-punched. All breath leaves her at once.

“Where —“ she starts, eyes bugging. “What happened? Did Ernesto kill someone and steal his fortune?”

And immediately:

“Is the bank even going to take that?”

“It’s real,” Héctor confirms, with another splay-legged kind of smile. “From Señor Garciarona, in thanks for our excellent performance today.”

“That’s not our agreed-upon price,” Imelda protests.

“It was not our agreed-upon performance. God Himself came down to listen, didn’t you hear Him?”

She can’t answer — she’s still slack-jawed and staring at the money. She’s afraid to touch it, like if she does, it’ll crumble to sand. She must be losing color, because the next moment, he’s got an arm around her waist, propping her up.

“— Imelda? Imelda!”

Compulsively, she turns and embraces him.

“We can — !” she starts, on a happy, hysterical note. “That’s — Ernesto’s going to want new uniforms, he’s been wanting that for awhile, and —”

“Yes,” Héctor agrees, saying rapidly, “Yes — yes — and a new bed for Coco.”

“A new bed for Coco!” she echoes, because she hadn’t even thought of that. Had been trying not to think of it, because she wasn’t sure where household expenses could be cut to pay for it, but Coco wasn’t going to be able to sleep in her crib forever.

He looks down at her, eyes bright. “Do you think we’ll have enough leftover for our own phonograph, too?”

She tilts her head back, dazed by the thought, and then starts laughing helplessly.

“I’d like to have one,” he continues and they rock in place, arms around each other, “after everything else has been taken care of, if we still —“

He stops, and dips his head to kiss her mouth, like nothing else matters as much as that. She puts her hand under his chin and kisses him back — and then pulls back abruptly. So that’s why his mouth had looked so sloppy.

Ach,” she says with disgust. “Has Ernesto gone out with the horns?”

He blinks. “Yeah, how did you —“

“I can taste him in your mouth. Blerrgh,” she makes a show of scraping her tongue off on her teeth, then points. “Tooth brush and powder are over there, please use them.”

One hand embarrassedly covers his mouth. “Oh, sorry.” He starts to follow her instruction, half-turning away, before making a noise and surging right back into her space. He backs her against the table, scattering her pins to the floor. She almost puts her hand over the money to protect it, aware of it the way you’re aware of the pipe organ in church; nothing starts without it.

“— amazing, you’re amazing,” Héctor chants, tipping her back further and kissing his way down her neck. “You’ve still got it, did you see them? You sang and the whole world stopped.”

“It’s not like I set it down anywhere,” she retorts. “I didn’t stop singing just because I’ve stopped traveling.”

She tries to sound sharp about it, but he’s kissing along the collar of her blouse, and she ruins it by laughing and squirming when he hits the ticklish spot by her armpit.

He straightens up so they can grin at each other, pleased with themselves.

Then his face turns serious.

“Imelda,” and she comes alert at his tone of voice. “Have I told you yet how proud I am, of what you’ve made? Look at this.”

She looks — their home, the bed, his desk and her vanity (and why does a desk become a “vanity” when it’s in her possession? They’re both functionally the same piece of furniture,) and the bureau where they’d kept Coco before they had a crib. Their pictures. And this is just their bedroom. The cobbles in the courtyard are new, and it’s the stables she needs to attend to next, but —

“I’m amazed at what you built in such a short amount of time. There’s no ‘just because’ about it. I’m amazed by you.”

Imelda looks up at him.

I built you too, she thinks. As surely as you’ve built me.

Then she lifts up, hands skating up under his jacket and shoving it down his arms. He helps, and as soon as his arms are free, kisses her again, deep and full of feeling, running his thumbs under her jaw.

But really —

She jerks away. “Héctor!” She is sharp about it, this time. “I’m serious, clean your mouth out —“

“I will, I —“

“No! If I wanted to taste Ernesto, I’d suck him off myself!”

Imelda!” He reels back, scandalized, and then starts laughing. Helpless, rib-clutching laughter, because she forgets sometimes that he’s barely twenty-one, still young enough to think the height of comedy is when someone modifies an innocuous drawing into something phallic.

She shoves her hair out of the way and plants her hands on her hips, scowling.

Finally, he gets his snickering under control, sobering slowly and looking at her; the look in his eyes is the same one he’d come in with, low-lidded and wanting.

“Good thing, then,” he says, “that there’s so much I can do without kissing your mouth at all.”

Which is all the warning she gets before he drops to his knees in front of her.

Her breath catches. Lust flares up in her like a match struck, and she hitches herself up on her tiptoes to get away from it, her stomach turning liquid, melted at the sight.

Teeth showing, he gathers her skirts up and hands them to her with a brisk, “hold these, please,” and then his fingers stroke down the back of her thigh, the soft place behind her knee, pulling her stance wider.

Imelda lets her head fall back and counts her blessings.

 

*

 

“Hey,” he says to her, a few days later. “What’s on your mind?”

She rolls onto her back, and he shifts around, drawing his knees up under him.

“You’ve got that look,” he continues, leaning over her. She purses her mouth; he needs a haircut. “Like you’re planning. I call it the ‘halt, you stinking thief!’ look.”

“I did not say that.”

“I promise you, you did.”

“I was sixteen! You were stealing my mother’s clothes.”

“Ay, either way, who became the better thief in the end, huh? Are we going to steal something? Is that a stealing look?”

By Imelda’s estimation, they’ve got ten more minutes before they’re interrupted. Less, because it’ll take time to get back into their clothes, and so she’s got a dozen things on her mind, least of which is that she didn’t like the way the pinto mare came home coughing last time they boarded her by the station in San Domingo Ciamoptec, and the latch on the window is loose and so is the clasp on his suspenders, again, and —

What comes out of her mouth is none of that.

“No, no stealing,” she says to the ceiling. “I think I’m bored.”

“With what?”

“You,” and, in the single second where he doesn’t realize she’s teasing him, genuine alarm wipes Héctor’s face clean of all expression, but then Imelda shows teeth and clarifies, “your performance,” and he blinks, fast, like someone who just saw his life flash in front of his eyes.

“Oh?” he asks, on a descending note. “Dare I ask how I, ah, underperformed?”

Shoving her hair behind her back — it’s a lost cause, anyone who looks at her will know exactly what she’s been doing — she scrambles to her knees, so that they’re both kneeling on their blankets, naked as the day they were born.

“I want you to ask Ernesto back to our bed,” she blurts out. “I can’t be the one who — it’s got to be you.”

And Héctor says, “What?”

And Imelda says, “Where’s your next show?”

“I — uh. Not far. Oaxaca City.”

“Doña Bonita’s place?”

And Héctor says, “Ava works there now, did I tell you that? Doña Bonita pays her the same as the men.”

And Imelda says, “I knew I liked her. Take me with you, we’ll do one of our best, and we’ll get the room on the end, with the — you remember the one I’m talking about?”

“Nobody ever wants the rooms on either side,” Héctor’s cottoning on. “They’ll be unoccupied.”

Imelda’s nails dig into the tops of her thighs.

“We’ll take him to bed, we’ll compose something new for us,” she says, and honesty happens before she can think about it. “Whatever you’ve been doing, it hasn’t worked. He’s … distant.”

He spends more time out with the horns, flipping through broadsheets full of things that rich people buy, than he does at home. The spell that overcame them after Coco’s birth, when they wanted to do everything together, has shifted, changed, sunk away. It’s taken Imelda this long to admit she’s homesick for it.

Part of her hopes Héctor will deny it, but he doesn’t.

“I want to bring him back to us,” she says.

Something tender shifts in his eyes. “You do?”

She frowns, batting him away when he leans in, like she’s stepped into a cobweb. “Of course I do,” she says waspishly. “We’re his family, he should be here for his family.”

Héctor gathers her face in his hands and kisses her while she’s still talking. It’s a thorough kiss, pulling her inexorably forward, and she lifts up until she’s straddling his lap.

“Imelda,” he murmurs, low.

“Héctor,” she replies in turn, throaty with it.

“Is that why you’re telling me you’re bored? Is that all you wanted?” He pushes her hair back over her ear, kisses her chin. “I thought you liked the way I fit inside you.”

“He’s fatter than you,” Imelda reminds him, just to be contrary. “You can’t live on one type of sausage, no matter how good.”

And then has to wait, patiently, for him to stop laughing.

“Well, then,” he says, when he gets his twitching mouth under control. “I better get my wife what she wants.”

“You usually do,” she allows.

A beat passes, and they just look at each other, black-eyed, mouths parted, and then Imelda cuts a glance towards the door.

“How much time do you think we have?” she asks.

“To come again? Enough for you, probably, but not for me,” he sounds rueful about it.

So Imelda fists her hand in his hair, and says, “get to work, then.”

 

*

 

Alvaro Obregón takes office that December. He wants the second celebration of the first centennial anniversary of the end of Mexico’s war for independence (it’s a long story) well-documented, so when it comes time for the census, he sends photographers. Two portraits per household.

It’s an ambitious project, but it’s time the country starts looking for its ambition again.

The promise of reform is what stopped the war, but under Carranza those reforms weren’t anything but sunrise in the mountains: you could see them on the mountain peaks, but it was still cold with dawn in the valleys. The rich still have all the land. There’s no union, no representation for workers. No one’s seen any reparation for what they’ve lost. No wonder Carranza got himself shot — what on earth did he think they elected him for?

Obregón had been born a Sonoran man, and in Oaxaca everyone’s reluctantly come to the agreement that that’s not strictly his fault, but the only presidents who matter are the Oaxacan ones and that’s just a fact. It’s no easy thing to be the president of Mexico, if the string of murdered men that pearled the government between Díaz and Obregón is anything to go by, but Santa Cecilia loves Díaz even less for making a cenote out of their population — for poisoning their water to get to the maderistas.

For a northerner, Obregón’s all right. Before becoming Carranza’s minister of war (and eventually the mastermind behind the revolt that led to his assassination) he’d held factory jobs, mechanical, farming. Real work. He understands in his bones what it means to have to fight for respect.

In all his pictures, your eyes go first to his face — and then to where his sleeve’s been buttoned over his arm. He wants you to see what it cost him, this war, every time you look at him.

So when the census man comes, everyone turns out to be counted in their bandoliers, their red, white, and green banderas, insurgente blankets pulled up around their shoulders, so that Obregón would know Santa Cecilia fought for the revolutionaries.

(Objectively, they all know that he will probably never see these photos, but someone will and that’s what matters.)

Imelda and Héctor had been children when Díaz was ousted from office, spent their teenage years playing music to a Mexico sick with political upheaval, and never got near Mexico City for threat of violence. They have no bandoliers, no guns, but Héctor has his guitar, because it’s a named thing, and part of their family. He brings out the best charro jacket Ernesto had tailored, all-white with the gold ornaments, and Imelda sticks her tongue between her teeth and teases him about the puffed-out shoulders.

I know the shape that’s underneath those! Who do you think you’re fooling?”

“The president of Mexico, hopefully,” Héctor replies in his loftiest voice. “The eyes of history won’t know I’m a scarecrow, Imelda. You’ll see.”

Imelda laughs, then says, “Where is Ernesto, anyway?”

“I … don’t know.”

“9 o’clock, the man said, right?”

“Right,” and he frowns.

But 9 o’clock comes and goes, and there’s no sign of Ernesto.

“He’s part of this household,” Imelda reminds Héctor again, hiking Coco up on her hip as the census man directs them where to stand. “Why isn’t he turning up to be counted with this household?”

The man interrupts before Héctor can say anything. “With the horses?” He sounds doubtful. “Are you sure?”

“We wouldn’t be here without them, señor,” Imelda responds. “They’re part of the household, too.”

And that lasts until the pinto mare pops her head over the stall door and lips at Imelda’s careful updo, so they pull the chair into the courtyard and take the photographs there, up against the side of the house: Imelda frowning against the light, Coco puzzled by the production, Héctor with his hand on the back of her chair.

One photo goes to the census bureau, but they get to keep the other. It’s the first one they have of their family, this one, and so up it goes, between the Madonna and the Juárez.

 

*

 

There will be other pictures, of course, of her and Coco, from every stage of their lives. But the first time Imelda takes the marigold path into the Land of the Living, armed with nothing but a color-coded pamphlet from the Bridge Authority outlining vague directions and a couple important rules, she’ll come stand in front of the ofrenda and look up at the picture in its frame: herself, hard-eyed and her mouth turned down; Coco on her knee; the beheaded figure of her husband in Ernesto’s tailoring.

Something scaly moves in her heart, wanting to be scratched.

Of all those photos, she thinks, and this is the one her daughter picked to remember her by.

That when asked what her mother was like, this is the first place Coco brings people, every time.

 

*

 

“Well? What do you think?” she asks.

Coco cranes her neck back to look at her inquisitively.

Imelda shifts around to get her more comfortably settled into her lap, anchoring her with an arm around her waist and using her free hand to point at the map on the table. It’s their travel map, with all their old pencil marks: music notes over the towns where they could rely on regular booking; stars where the cooking stones were; x’s where the armies used to have the roads closed off.

She gives her a little bounce. “Where would you want to live, mija? I want to stay in Oaxaca, but I know your padrino Ernesto is going to try to sell us on relocating to Mexico City.”

“Mexico City!”

“Right. And I’m willing to let him try. But there’s got to be a middle ground between Santa Cecilia and Mexico City, somewhere we can compromise on.”

It’s an idea she’s been roasting down like a mole sauce, slow and labor-intensive. Santa Cecilia had worked fine as a temporary respite, but it’s not going to hold them for much longer. Which is unfortunate, given the amount of work Imelda’s put into fixing up the property, but hopefully leaving it in Madre Emmanuela’s charitable hands will soften the blow of leaving.

It’ll have to be somewhere big enough for the world to come to them, so if Héctor wanted to hear the world’s musicians and learn from them, he doesn’t have to spend weeks riding trains to do it. But not Mexico City, not that big — it’s not Oaxaca, and Imelda’s afraid that God might lose sight of them in between all those honking automobiles and neon lights.

“Where do you want to go?” she asks Coco.

Coco picks at the button eyes of her little stuffed sheep and frowns seriously at the map.

“Baa!” she declares, and thunks the sheep down —

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

“Noted,” Imelda says wryly.

 

*

 

She thinks she has all the time in the world to talk to Héctor and Ernesto about it.

In reality, she has four days.

 

*

 

Ernesto’s got them a gig.

He’d been talking to the census man, see, who knows a guy — and it’s three months in Mexico City, then Monterrey and San Luis Potosí, and somewhere in there there’s a chance to win a spot on the radio, too, and the radio means everyone can hear them, Imelda. Everyone. They have to go.

The ground’s slipping out from under her before she even starts.

“I don’t know what you’re yelling at me for,” Ernesto says to her peevishly — and he’s talking over her head, too. “You didn’t even want to go last time!”

This is why we don’t let you plan anything! Imelda thinks. Because your plans are always the worst!

But she’s too frustrated to articulate anything other than, “I had a plan!”

“I thought you’d be happy — Tomás arranged for us to catch a ride, so we don’t even have to take the horses.”

“Yes,” Imelda scrapes out, in disbelief. “That’s what I have the problem with. The horses.”

Ernesto cuts her an exasperated look. “There’s no satisfying you, is there, woman?”

With that, he grabs his sombrero off its hook — the fancy one, all in white with the gold trim — and turns his back on her with a flap of his hand. Dismissing her.

And that, that he definitely picked up from the other mariachi in the plaza. He didn’t used to do that.

She thins her eyes at the back of his head and thinks, for one spectacularly violent moment, about hitting him. Just straight-up hitting him. Maybe he’d take her seriously if she acted like a boy about it.

The next moment, she’s overwhelmed with a sense of irreplaceable loss.

They’re not their fearsome three-headed entity anymore. They’re not Héctor-and-Imelda-and-Ernesto, the best group of traveling musicians in Oaxaca. She doesn’t think they’ve been that for awhile.

When she gets to their bedroom, she finds Héctor putting the guitar away, tucking the strap to the side. He closes the lid on its grimacing skull face, lifts it by the handle and sets it on the floor. The case is the same one they left San Juan Albán with, that her brothers salvaged from Papá Figaro’s school — four years ago. Somehow, only four years ago.

“I want to go, Imelda,” he says to her, without turning around.

He must have just finished with Coco’s lullabies, then, and left her asleep with the moon watching over her, with no inkling she’d wake up tomorrow without it or him.

“Don’t make me be this woman,” she says in a tight voice. “Don’t make me do this, Héctor.”

He does whirl on her then, his expression helpless and pleading by turns. He’s in his boots, his second-best mariachi suit in the burgundy suede that she knows by heart. They’ll head straight to the station from here, catch the early train tomorrow morning. Every instinct in Imelda’s body screams in protest: traveling at night is the best way to make sure you don’t get to your destination!

“You don’t have to, mi amor, my love,” he tries. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to be.”

“Then why do you have to go?”

“It’s Ernesto’s dream, it’s …” He falters, and drops his voice. “I don’t want him to have to do it alone. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for him, is that he doesn’t have to go it alone. Not anymore.”

“But leaving me alone is fine?” she snaps.

“No! I don’t — I don’t know, I just know that I want to go. I have to, Imelda.”

But Imelda isn’t done yet. Her rage bubbles and simmers and keeps spilling everywhere, and even with her husband right here in front of her, his hands outspread and begging, she wants him to feel as helpless as she does. She wants whatever power over this situation she can get.

“You know you sound like egotistical children, right?”

“We want to play for Mexico. Why is that so bad? After all it’s been through, you don’t think Mexico deserves something —“

“Mexico is right here!” Imelda loses control of her voice — it turns brittle and breaks. She jabs her finger down the hall, in the direction of Coco’s room, and says furiously, “The best thing we’ve got, the generation that’s never going to have to fight our war. She’s right here. Your daughter thinks the world of you. All of Mexico, and she’d trade it for you.”

He shoves his stricken expression aside, shuts it away in his case with the rest.

“That’s why I have to go! It earns me money. I can’t do it for fun, I’ve got to go where the money is. For her.”

“Then we never should have left the mountains!” Imelda cries. “If that’s the case, you should have taken over as maestro of Figaro’s school the way he wanted you to, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion!”

Héctor vents a frustrated sound out through his teeth, and, feeling petty, Imelda immediately mimics it with a mocking one of her own. He glares, and turns away.

“Oh, no, no, I know that face,” she points at him. “Now you think I sound like my mother.”

“No,” Héctor says, very quietly. “I think you sound like your uncle.”

And Imelda stops breathing.

There’s nothing in her ears but the madness of her own heartbeat, the colossal sound of something rushing downhill.

In the silence that follows, Héctor turns his head, peeks at her sidelong — instinctive, like looking at the roadkill in the ditch to see how awful it is even though you know you don’t want to. Whatever her face is doing, his mouth wobbles and threatens to crumple. He has no experience with being cruel.

She sees the word start, knows what will follow it — I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that — and she holds her breath, no idea what her response will be.

But then he catches it.

His mouth flattens out, and this —

— this is the moment Imelda will remember for the rest of her life, because it’s the last expression of Héctor’s she ever sees.

Nothing ever overwrites it.

He turns his back on her, and maybe, in some other life, this is the thing in their marriage that would have festered and rotted: the moment Héctor hurt Imelda and withheld his apology, to get what he wanted.

She wouldn’t know. It never got the chance.

Héctor Rivera picks up his guitar and his suitcase and leaves, and his wife never sees him alive again.

 

*

Chapter Text

*

 

PART FOUR: IMELDA RIVERA’S GREEDY USELESS NO GOOD HUSBAND

 

*

 

The second, third, and fourth attempts are the same as the first: simply to try again. There must be some mistake.

The seventh and eighth involve tracking down anyone who’s got an ofrenda in Santa Cecilia willing to investigate for him, so he can get an idea of what could have gone wrong. He’s looking for a mariachi, he says, Imelda Consequela and her daughter, Coco. Both times, he gets nothing in return but a puzzled look and empty hands. Sorry, Héctor, we couldn’t find anyone there by that description.

The ninth involves a petition.

The tenth, bribery.

The sixteenth attempt bankrupts him. His mother doesn’t speak to him for weeks.

The seventeenth is his first attempt to sneak across. Some minor celebrity holds up traffic as authorities debate the size of her suitcases, which she’s pulling along behind her piled high on a bellhop’s trolley. She’ll need them all, she insists, if she’s going to collect from every ofrenda she’s on. While everyone’s back is turned, Héctor hops over the rope partition, opens the largest one, and crams himself inside. They limit the celebrity to three, and Héctor gets shoved with the others into the back of a closet until she gets back.

The twenty-second involves falsified information.

The thirtieth is to swim.

The thirty-first is the boat.

The thirty-second is the same boat, but taken out to the island of lost things, where supposedly everything in the Land of the Dead that’s ever been discarded washes up; it’s a mountain of trash, junk so old its purpose is unclear, alebrijes who failed, and gods who’ve been forgotten and unnamed. Here, he makes a deal, shakes a hand.

There is no thirty-third or thirty-fourth attempt. His memory had been the price for the thirty-second.

The fiftieth is Chicharrón’s femur.

The sixtieth, his minivan.

The seventieth, his mini-fridge, which is more uncomfortable than the suitcase but not as bad as the picnic basket, and nothing, nothing will ever be as claustrophobic as the time he tried to dig a tunnel.

The eightieth is the closest he ever gets to giving up, but that’s the year they install the facial scanners — and Héctor whoops and leaps and punches the air. It’s something new to try, and one of these days he’ll get it, he will. If he could just alter himself — just enough that it won’t recognize him as Héctor Rivera, if it thinks of him as literally anyone else, he might stand a chance.

The eighty-first, and the problem is that Héctor is penniless Los Olvidados trash, with a police record as long as his arm, clothes he can’t keep in repair, and bones grey and broken. No one’s going to help him. Fine. He’ll do it himself.

The eighty-second is — no.

The ninetieth is —

The ninety-fifth —

The —

 

*

 

It was habit, you see. Running away from home.

In hindsight, Héctor should have recognized it for what it was: he and Ernesto had done it before. Three times.

The first time, Ernesto was sixteen and Héctor twelve, right around the time the nuns figured out that not only was Ernesto charming and personable, but he was also going to grow up handsome — he was still too uncoordinated to be there yet, but you could see it in him, the places where the brushstrokes would fill him out, what he’d look like when he was done.

More importantly, it was around the time Ernesto figured it out too, and began to use it — on Madre Emmanuela, on Héctor, on the tamale man going door-to-door, on any stranger in Mariachi Plaza who had a story and was willing to be charmed. It was one of these last, a beanpole man with a mustache nearly as long as he was, that convinced him those big shoulders would be useful in a performer’s life.

“Héctor, too?” Ernesto checked.

The man’s eyes landed on Héctor and scraped right back off again, like he’d found something stuck to the bottom of his shoe. “Ay, little pelón, too.”

So when the traveling show came, camping close enough to Santa Cecilia to lure them in with the promise of song and adventure, Ernesto found the man in charge and got themselves hired as stage hands in less than five minutes.

“Shouldn’t we tell somebody?” Héctor asked, surfacing from their hasty packing.

“No, they’ll be glad to have us gone. Think of it like we’re getting an apprenticeship, amigo!”

(It was 1912, and anonymity, a good costume, and no permanent address was a good way to survive a war, which was the only other career option at the time.)

The show had one lion, one monkey, three trapeze artists in sparkling outfits, a hands-on Oaxacan healer who was real, a fortune-teller who was not but who nevertheless put on a very convincing tone when she tried to sell them their rise to greatness. The costumes were nicer than anything they’d had before. Ernesto joined the crew, and as soon as they saw Héctor plucking ropes, they shoved a fiddle into his chest and gave him to the band.

It was fun for the first four nights, but then Ernesto figured out what Héctor had seen at a glance: that the crew’s job during a performance was to be invisible, and Ernesto was not made to be invisible.

They came creeping home a week after they left, and Madre Emmanuela took Héctor aside and said, “Thank you for talking sense into him,” and he nodded, even though he didn’t remember doing anything of the sort. At twelve, he had already accepted that this was going to be his role.

And anyway, one good thing came out of it.

Ernesto rolled over one night, and poked Héctor in the ribs.

“I want you to teach me what you were doing,” he said in response to Héctor’s ornery noise.

He cracked an eye open. The church was full of families fleeing the fighting in the north, and all the boys had been booted out of the dormitories and now slept in tight rows in the loft, interwoven like eyelet laces. Around him, he could hear the snuffling of the others, the faint creaking of the rope holding the bell in the belfry.

“What?” he said, and then, getting it, “The fiddle?”

“Yeah.”

Héctor tilted his head back. “No.”

An indignant noise. “What do you —“

“No, I mean it’s not right. That’s just one step away from being in the horn section. How about the guitar?”

This, later, will always come as a surprise to people: that Ernesto didn’t always want to be a musician. He hadn’t even picked up an instrument before that year.

At that time, the only way to be a person of any note in Mexico was to have a horse, a gun, and to go riding into Mexico City with an army at your back. All through his childhood, Ernesto wanted to be a general — not because he had any particular fondness for soldiering, but because men like that made Mexico, and you had to be willing to kill to get where you wanted. There was nothing else to be.

Until one man from Jalisco got up with his guitar and made people listen.

He put mariachi music on the map, and it took a long time for it to reach the remote mountains and valleys of Oaxaca, but when it did, it struck a note inside Ernesto, like something had hollowed him out and this made it reverberate like the clap of a bell. Like something singing false, now put into tune.

“I … could,” he said, with a slow, dawning note. “And you could help me! You’re decent enough.”

“Sure,” Héctor agreed, pleased in spite of himself.

And that, as they say, was that.

 

*

 

The second time they run away, they’re on the road anyway, sent from Santa Cecilia to San Juan Albán to start their apprenticeships.

Ernesto spends the first half of the trip convincing him that they don’t need it, Héctor, that they’re good enough on their own, that they’d write each party responsible with a lie about the other and live free as Mixtecs. People get lost all the time in a war, and who wants to live in the mountains anyway?

Later, of course, Héctor realizes that it had probably been nerves, that Ernesto’s confident enough in his playing when it’s just Héctor but now he’ll have to convince a maestro to take him, and he’s afraid enough of failing that he’ll dodge even trying.

And all that will be obvious in hindsight, but right now Héctor’s willing to let himself be swept away, the same way he always does for whatever vision Ernesto presents to him, whether they’re renowned musicians playing for famous actresses or fierce rebel villista soldiers blazing into Zacatecas on horseback.

They make it as far as Chilpancingo, in Guerrero.

They’ve never been out of Oaxaca before, which you could hear in their accents as soon as they open their mouths, and the owner of the first salon they apply at listens to them for two minutes and laughs them out the door.

“Get some real training, muchachos,” he tells them, not unkindly. “And come back then.”

“But, señor —“ Ernesto tries, and looks to Héctor for back up.

Héctor’s distracted: the owner’s wife is visible through the archways, gently correcting the child sweeping the stone floors. Her hair is loosely braided down her back, her hands coated to the wrist in dark red chili powder except for the single shining bright band of her wedding ring. The abuelita sits in the chair behind her, sucking at her teeth, not doing anything except be there with the people she loves most.

The ache of want nearly knocks him flat.

“We’ll go, señor, thank you,” he says, and drags the indignant Ernesto away by the hand.

 

*

 

The third time, they’ve been Figaro’s apprentices for years, and the maestro’s decided they’re going to stay to teach the younger children after he retires. In fact, part of him’s already kicked its feet up, confident he has their whole careers in pocket.

That their own wants and desires might differ from his … hasn’t occurred to him.

Héctor nudges him. “You know, Maestro Ernesto’s got a nice ring to it.”

“The only reason we’re here,” Ernesto makes a grumpy gesture out the window, meaning San Juan Albán and its damp stones, its buildings painted bright candy colors to make them visible in the fog, the forelock that gets plastered to his forehead and never quite dries. “Is so that someday we don’t have to be here. I should be a maestro already, you know this.”

“Of course, amigo,” says Héctor, who wouldn’t mind being a music teacher.

There wouldn’t be any point, though. Not without Ernesto.

And anyway, dreams aren’t about making yourself small and then settling for the shape you become, and so when Ernesto meets a man named Hidalgo (he claims, but it’s a common recruiter’s trick to call upon Mexican patriotism like that; it had been a Hidalgo who’d led an untrained army of commoners out to overthrow Spanish occupation — and got most of them killed doing it, but that was beside the point,) who promises them a show if they’ll come to Veracruz, it doesn’t take much to convince Héctor to come, too.

The month’s sequence of events that leads them to the inn, their last handful of cash, and no show to their name is exactly what you’d think it would be. The humiliation is punishment enough.

“Maybe we should just pick an army, become soldiers after all,” Ernesto says mulishly, and gives the bed a kick where the legs have made coin-sized rust stains on the floor. It screeches back at him petulantly.

He turns and thunks down, hard enough to jounce Héctor, whose pencil makes a D note abruptly catapult off the page. “Die thanklessly like them, too,” he mutters.

Fishing for an eraser, Héctor looks at him.

Soldiers are a chronic cause for orphans. He would know. No one knows who Ernesto’s parents had been or how they died, and with unerring instinct Héctor knows this plays into it: Ernesto doesn’t get the luxury of deciding whether he wants to be like his parents or not. So he’ll be something he knows they never got to be. Famous.

You can join the army,” he points out. “I’m not old enough.”

Ernesto tosses him a dismissive look over his shoulder. “There are armies that won’t care. They give guns to boys.”

And those are the armies that know they’re probably going to lose, Héctor thinks.

“Otherwise, we can lie and say you’re older.”

“Ernesto,” he says, disbelieving. “We can’t get anybody to believe I am the age I actually am. Look at me!”

He spreads his arms — spindly, like matchsticks. Held together largely with spit and tight tailoring. His comically disproportionate features make him look like a child, and what’s worse, his body acts like it, too, constantly disagreeing with itself on where it is in space so that he’s always colliding with things he avoided just fine a few months ago. His skin feels like a livewire tract, like the lightning rods you see in the desert: any energy in a room and Héctor zeroes in on it unerringly. It’s annoying, how aware he is at any given moment, of how desperately he wants to be touched. Accidentally. On purpose. Oh, on purpose.

Ernesto just blinks at him. “You look fine,” he says.

And Héctor says, “well, thank you,” but not without exasperation.

There’s no arguing, really, when Ernesto gets it into his head to go ahead and have a good sulk, so Héctor takes his songbook and goes outside.

The inn backs up right into a copse of trees, the usual mix of pines and oaks looming in close like at any moment it might be swallowed up and disappear. The yard is full of debris, fallen leaves skudding about and footpaths mulched through to strategic points. Héctor and Ernesto had known at a glance that this place was one good raid away from being abandoned completely, but they hadn’t had much choice.

He sits down at the edge of the yard, mind already turning back to that lost D note — what was supposed to come after that? — but a wink of light catches his eye. He leans over. What he had thought was just more debris is a path. There’s stone under there.

“… huh,” he says.

He puts the songbook aside and draws his knees up under him, brushing away the dirt with more intent. After a moment’s hesitation, he wriggles around to get his undershirt off and starts stripping it into rags. It was time, regardless.

After the light changes on him, he pulls back to look at what he’s managed to clear, says “huh” again, and goes back to the room.

Like everything else in this place, it’s about to disintegrate. Light peeks through the gaps in the boards. The bed tips tiredly under Ernesto’s weight. His hands are buried in his hair; he’s busy muttering rebuttals like he thinks his opponents are in the room. Héctor almost wishes he was still writing those love letters to Bernice: at least it had given him an outlet for all that, instead of leaving him to fantasize about winning arguments he was never going to have.

“Ernesto,” Héctor says to that hunch-backed figure. “Come see what I found.”

“Not right now, my friend,” is the muttered reply.

“Mi amigo, please,” Héctor sing-songs, and when this does nothing, changes octaves and keeps crooning, increasingly drawn-out about it, until Ernesto rises to his feet and rounds on him in exasperation.

What.”

Héctor flashes him a grin. “Come see,” and he ducks out the door.

Sunset stains the sky the same damp color of tangerines, and the shadows of the encroaching trees are held off by a single lantern hung from the gate. The sloping sun finds the holes in the innkeeper’s hanging laundry and peeks through them, his white shirts turned translucent with orange light. It’s the only evidence Héctor’s seen of anyone else living. Typically, when soldiers control the main roads, backroads like this become a haven for people like them, but Héctor hasn’t seen any traffic the whole time he was working, no sign of any other tenants.

Footsteps come up behind him, Ernesto drawn out in spite of himself.

He points. “Look.”

Underneath the neglect, turquoise tiles lay inlaid in what promises to be a beautiful, if crooked mosaic. At first, Héctor had thought they were talavera, since they’re close enough to the border that the markets usually have Pueblan earthenware in the same stalls next to the Oaxacan alebrijes, but the more grime he cleared away, the quicker he realized this was older than that, older than the inn that had been built on top of it. This has been here forever.

Ernesto takes a step back. Héctor watches him try to finish the bigger picture, based on what Héctor’s cleared: a sun, perhaps, rising against that blue-green sky.

Looking at it —

Looking at it, all of a sudden Héctor can believe that they are descended from Tenochtitlán, the golden city Mexico City had been before it was Mexico City; and if not from them, then from the same people that made Benito Juárez. That he and Ernesto are orphans with nothing to their names and this is still their legacy: this turquoise and this gold.

“This is … “ Ernesto breathes, visibly impressed.

“There’s beauty underneath everything,” Héctor points out, keeping his voice quiet. He’s been rehearsing this line. “There’s opportunity under every dirty covering. Everything was wonderful and can be wonderful again, you’ll see.”

The look Ernesto gives him tells him that if he was aiming for subtlety, he missed.

But he’s distracted now, kneeling down next to him. He traces the tile with his fingertip. Héctor, watching his face, sees the moment that same appreciation overtakes him. It is, Héctor thinks, a very handsome look on him. After a long moment, Ernesto reaches out and claps him on the shoulder.

He lifts his eyes. The purse to his mouth softens.

“If there’s one thing I know to be true,” he says, with significance. He squeezes Héctor’s shoulder. “It’s that there is opportunity in everything when I am with you, my friend.”

It’s like stepping on a trap: Héctor’s heart trip-hammers, a sensation like teeth scissoring into the undefended parts of him.

He starts to smile, half-touched, half-exasperated that Ernesto just says things like that, except then Ernesto’s hand slides up to cup his face.

It’s just a pat — it’s like any other of the thousands of casual gestures Ernesto’s laid on him in their life together — but right now it’s so unexpected, and Héctor is feeling so vulnerable about it, that his breath catches with an audible click and he rocks into it. His chin snags against the rough of Ernesto’s palm.

Just as quick, he tugs back, but it’s too late.

Whatever the moment was, it was there and now they’re on the other side of it, and Héctor cannot pull them back. He cannot make it unhappen.

Maybe he didn’t notice —

“Héctor?”

— of course he did.

It’s the slow, dawning note of discovery in Ernesto’s voice, his eyes close and unblinking, and Héctor doesn’t know what to do. He tries to be prepared for everything — he’ll keep hard candies in his pockets for when Papá Figaro loses his temper and makes the youngest apprentices cry. He used to keep a pack of cigarettes for Gilberto, not because Héctor had any interest in smoking, but because sometimes he and Gilberto would put their backs up against the side of the building and Gilberto would keep a cigarette in one hand and stick the other down Héctor’s pants. Whatever else they smelled like when they were done, mostly they smelled like smokes. But they hadn’t discussed it. It hadn’t really mattered. So the only words he knows for this situation are bad ones.

But this is Ernesto. This matters.

Is he going to wind up on the ground, his lights punched out, or worse?

This — god, he’s got to have more faith in their friendship than that.

He gives himself a shake, the same internal grito he’ll use to psyche himself up before a performance. Then he lifts both hands to cover Ernesto’s, pressing it into his cheek.

“Oh — kiss me if you’re going to, please,” rushes out of him, all at once.

Ernesto blinks, eyes dropping to his mouth and back, and — and there’s a truly terrifying moment where Héctor thinks he got it all wrong. That he, Héctor, kissed someone accessible because he was curious and then somehow convinced himself that Ernesto would want to, too, because what one of them wanted, the other wanted, that’s how that’s always worked. But if he’s wrong, he’ll spend the rest of his life seeking forgiveness for this moment; Ernesto won’t trust him again.

It’s this that makes Héctor start to pull away, chest stinging like he’d swallowed the future and found it full of glass —

And then Ernesto pulls him in.

Oh, Héctor thinks.

And, oh no, I’ve miscalculated.

He doesn’t know what Ernesto’s expecting is going to happen — actually, yes he does, he’s expecting their mouths to repel, like the magnets their bookish nuns let them play with in Sunday school. Boys and girls could touch lips, but girls didn’t kiss girls and boys didn’t kiss boys and there had to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for it, and when Héctor was little, he thought it’d been this, too: that you simply physically couldn’t, the same way you couldn’t get the bad ends of the magnets to touch each other. But it wasn’t. You can.

Ernesto cants into him, kissing him again.

He loops an arm around Ernesto’s neck, scrabbles briefly, and then hauls them up together, trying to gain some kind of traction, but Ernesto’s pushing into the kiss so hard it’s almost impossible to kiss him back. His hands grip Héctor’s face bruisingly tight.

Still distant about it, Héctor thinks, I didn’t know. I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.

Héctor,” says Ernesto.

“Yeah,” Héctor agrees — or tries to, but when his mouth parts Ernesto catches his bottom lip and sucks on it, hard, and Héctor’s thoughts vanish like a trapdoor had opened underneath them.

They’re both still sitting together on the ground, half-lifted to meet one another; Ernesto’s proximity makes up the entirety of Héctor’s world, his shoulders a mountain range, his face its sky and weather. Thinking the angle would be easier if they were chest-to-chest, Héctor comes up onto his knees and moves to straddle Ernesto’s lap —

— and winds up on his ass on the tile, colliding with the ground hard enough to make his teeth scissor through his tongue.

No,” Ernesto says.

Panic makes his voice thin, reedy. His mouth is spread, wet, his hair tugged free of its style.

He looks so good Héctor wants to melt, to stick to him like condensation on glass —

If not for the very naked fear on his face.

“No,” he says wildly, backpedaling. “Are you crazy. No, no. I can’t be this. I’m not allowed — not if I want to be somebody — “

Héctor scrambles to his feet, turning his head to spit out saliva and blood before saying, “Look at me — look at me —“

But Ernesto knocks his hands away, fights him off, panting shallowly and pitching himself to his feet. He paces tight circles across the mural. The old terror knots at Héctor’s stomach; that panic’s going to give away to anger soon, and that anger will need an outlet. Their friendship can survive kissing, but it won’t survive hitting. They wouldn’t want it to.

Fortunately, this is Héctor, and he’s gone into every relationship with his hands up, already giving.

“Hey,” he tries, his palms outstretched. “Hey — listen to me —“

“Héctor. Don’t.”

“— you know how there’s at least one performer every time that’s plain terrible? Can’t hit his notes, makes even the prettiest guitar sound sour. No one looks at him because they’re counting the minutes until he goes away — and it’s silly, isn’t it, because nine times out of ten if you put any of them in his shoes, they couldn’t do it, either. But they still expect him to get it right.”

He has Ernesto’s attention now, thank God.

“How —“ he drops his hands to his sides. His brows hunker in with confusion, furrowing together. “That’s exactly what it’s like.”

Every inch of Héctor aches with sympathy. Carefully, he gets to his feet.

“I know,” he says.

“— like I’m hitting the notes wrong and everyone can see.”

Héctor takes his face in his hands.

Ernesto inhales, swift as someone anticipating a blow, but Héctor sweeps his thumbs under his eyes like it’s his favorite chord, “They don’t want to listen to us, or — or look at us. They just want to sit there and wait for us to go away so they don’t have to admit they don’t like how we play. But we’re here and I’m listening, Ernesto.”

“You — “ Ernesto says under his hands, half a question.

“Yes, me,” Héctor confirms. “I hear you. I’m listening.”

And this time, he’s ready.

This time, it’s not so alarming, how Ernesto skates his hands up his back, slow and with wonder, until they suddenly grab him tight so he can kiss him with his entire mouth.

That this — which in Héctor’s experience had been fun and interesting but not often worth the risk — was something Ernesto hadn’t been able to stop thinking about. He rehearsed it in his head again and again the same way he’d obsess over arguments he wanted to win. It consumed him. Became as important to him as breaking into the convent to steal those letters back had been for Héctor; irrational, probably damaging, and he could no more help the attempt than he could remove a body part.

I’m sorry, he thinks, for the third time. I didn’t know.

And now the weight of it — this new fantasy, this new dream — is his to carry, too.

They sway in place, gripping each other’s faces. Ernesto holds him still for each successive kiss as much as Héctor tries to climb into each and every one. His mouth hurts. His tongue hurts. His ribs feel like they’re splitting with a wild joy.

Soon, one hand slips free. Héctor hadn’t dug out his last remaining undershirt while he was inside, so he’s got nothing on under the jacket, and the brush of Ernesto’s knuckles against his bare chest sends every lightning rod nerve singing to attention, shocking a moan out of him.

Ernesto chuckles, warm and surprised. His hand flattens out. Héctor feels electrocuted, blackened by that touch alone. Maybe it’ll come off, maybe he’ll grow new skin wherever Ernesto’s hand touches him and be the better for it.

It slides up, catching under his shoulder and trying to push the jacket off his arm, and that’s enough to get his attention.

“Wait,” he gasps out. “Wait, no — inside, take me inside.”

“Why?” Ernesto follows him, kisses his mouth. “Do you think there’s a single person here to see?”

And Héctor laughs back. It’s ticklish. He hadn’t expected kissing and talking simultaneously to feel that silly. He wants to do it again as often as possible.

“The innkeeper —“

“— took our money as easily as anything else. Who’s he going to tell?”

“Ernesto. That’s a rich man’s way of looking at it.”

Ernesto opens his mouth to argue the point, but Héctor’s ready; with every inch of his wanting, aching bravery, he takes two fingers and hooks them over Ernesto’s belt loop, pulling them up flush. Ernesto’s mouth snaps shut. His eyes go liquid, black. He breathes out very slowly.

Héctor tilts his head. “What are you going to do to me?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” Ernesto answers, and then, in a faintly wondering way, “what can I do to you?”

Héctor pulls out of his grip — not without some squirming, but there are some advantages to being wiry — and hops backwards over the tile, turquoise squares giving away to gold. “Come inside with me,” he says, “and find out. I don’t want any witness but God.”

 

*

 

They crawl back to San Juan Albán, where Papá Figaro folds his arms and says, “niños,” in a way that manages to be accusatory, reproving, and disappointed in only two syllables. “Did you have a good time?”

“Maestro,” Héctor and Ernesto acknowledge in a mumble, their hats off and their heads bowed.

Figaro sucks at his teeth, then dismisses them with a, “Go, sleep it off.”

They peek at each other sidelong, disbelieving.

He brandishes his spectacles. “I need more time to concoct a fitting punishment.”

Oh, there we go, that’s better.

So they go, and they accept their consequences, and Héctor feels like he’s been shoved off balance by it all, the way they get reabsorbed into the school and town like nothing’s changed. Tectonic ages have passed — which to everyone else was just four weeks. Oliveras is still a useless braggart. The engineer is still in the plaza, steadfast in his belief that everyone must be as interested in numbers as he is. There’s the fishmonger whose cologne is more overpowering than her wares, and there’s Don Consequela, the slimiest person you’ll meet in a day — the Sierra Madres could fall into the sea before Don Consequela stopped being awful, how that man got people to call him “Don” he’ll never know.

It’s Héctor who’s changed, irrevocably.

There’s part of him that doesn’t feel like it was real, like what happened in that room, on that bed, happened to somebody wearing his face, his body, and Héctor’s only aware of it because he was in the wings, waiting for the right cue to come in and take over.

He feels like every eye that lands on him should know, because how can they not?

It’s not possible that his body has this information now; he watches Ernesto practice a solo to an unimpressed audience of husked corn and it strikes him out of nowhere, that he knows what that mouth feels like on the inside of his thigh. He’s been plunged underwater all over again, yanked out of that Santa Cecilia watering hole flailing and fish-mouthed, completely reinvented.

“What do you keep smiling about?” Imelda asks him with laughter in her voice.

The priest and altar servers have finished processing out, and everyone’s gotten up to mingle. Her mother’s already scooted to the end of the pew, but Imelda waited for him, he’s sure of it — and he knows she would walk off a cliff before she admitted it to anyone.

He makes a show of returning her hymnal to her. “You dropped this, señorita.”

“Did I now?” she says in surprise, nudging her own hymnal out of sight and graciously accepting the one extended to her. “How did I manage that?”

And they grin at each other stupidly, like they’re getting away with anything.

“I don’t know what you mean. Smiling what?” Héctor says, fighting to school his lips into a straight line.

“That,” she says dryly, with a gesture, and she does that synchronized quirk of her mouth and her eyebrow that Héctor finds stunning, every time. “I thought your escapade was a failure?”

He grins. “Who told you that?”

Rolling her eyes, she folds her hands over her hymnal and stares forward, for all the world piously oblivious to his presence, but he sees her mouth twitching.

Shrugging, he leans against the pew, kicks one ankle over the other.

“So we didn’t get a show,” he says, “but what does that matter? It certainly wasn’t a waste.”

“I can see that. You look crazy, smiling like that.”

And he can’t help it. It’s like sunlight on stained glass; he’s colored all the way through with it. He beams at her.

“Just — a little bit,” he admits, and leaves her laughing to herself.

In the week following, Héctor’s in the acoustics room with the youngest Jimenez boy, listening to him fumble on trumpet, when Ernesto pokes his head in and says, “Ay, músico, the maestro wants to see you.”

Héctor ruffles Jimenez’s hair and pushes himself upright. “I’ll be right back, yeah?”

“Don’t hurry,” is the dispirited response.

That stupid sombrero Oliveras favors is close at hand, so Héctor snatches it up and drops it on Jimenez’s head, where it immediately slips down over his eyes. There’s a squawk, a “Héctor! You —“ and he shoves it up in order to glare, but Héctor’s already at the door, turning sideways to slip through it while Ernesto’s still holding it open for him. He grins, because that’s definitely the kind of thing Ernesto would have done to him when he was younger.

He looks up with that expression just as Ernesto looks down —

— and then Ernesto shuts the door with an abrupt snap and slides the other around Héctor’s back, pushing them up against the corridor wall.

Héctor makes a concentrated effort to climb his body all at once, the kiss less of a kiss and more of a desperate, greedy inhale.

Oh, he thinks, and, oh, oh.

The sad sound of Jimenez’s trumpet starts up on the other side of the door, sliding back down the scale, and they grab each other by the arms and pull themselves further down the corridor.

“I thought I’d made it up,” Ernesto’s telling him, shaky and rushed, “I make things up sometimes, believe it when I shouldn’t, the nuns said, and I thought this was one of those times, so it goes, ay —“

“— not, it’s not,” Héctor says rapidly. “No, no no.”

He’s flattened by the idea that he’d left Ernesto to cope with this revelation alone: that he had this, that it happened, that he can have men and God won’t strike him dead.

He skirts his hands up Ernesto’s ribs, across his back, looping in tight so he can kiss his chin on his way to his mouth.

“You didn’t make this up,” he promises, there against Ernesto’s lower lip, “you didn’t,” and kisses him.

Ernesto groans, so low it reverberates through him into Héctor, and they step back against the wall, all but tripping over each other’s feet. “God, Héctor, I can feel you,” and Héctor almost says, well, I should hope so, except then Ernesto murmurs, “It still feels good.”

With a faint noise, Héctor hauls himself in against Ernesto’s body and all but tries to eat his heart by way of his mouth.

“You can’t, it’s not,” he tries. “It’s not something you can use up. You can do it more than once.”

And then there’s a noise on the staircase, a shriek of a laugh, and they break apart, tucking their hands behind their backs and panting, panicked. Two girls race down the stairs and pass them without a glance, too busy swiping at each other with their marimba sticks and giggling.

When they’re gone, they stare at each other, alert, too aware of everything.

Out of the corner of his mouth, Ernesto asks, “What are we going to do?”

He sounds small, lost, and it’s strange, so strange, that Héctor has followed Ernesto’s lead his whole life, but on this, Ernesto looks to him.

Something’s in his throat, heavy and hard, difficult to speak around, and maybe he swallowed Ernesto’s heart after all. Maybe it’s lodged there. Maybe Héctor will have to keep it.

He says, “We’re going to finish our apprenticeships,” and Ernesto says, “yes,” and he says, “and we’re leaving, we’ll go north, any city will do,” and Ernesto says, “yes,” and he says, “and we’ll have a door that locks, for the rest of our lives,” and Ernesto grabs him by the ears and kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him, until their mouths taste the same.

 

*

 

Héctor gains a startling half a foot of height in six months, and spends the next six waiting to fill in anywhere else, but never does. It makes him feel like a block of wood everyone’s stuck a knife into; his wrists end in a bunch of sharp, thin fingers, he’s got pointed knees and an absolute cleaver of a nose. At least he’s taller than Ernesto now. Few can say that.

He finds himself once more thrust into the role of teacher.

First and foremost: how to keep a secret. Or, rather, how not to make it plainly obvious that you’ve got a secret. There are a lot of things you can call Ernesto, but subtle isn’t one of them. He’s done a good job hiding his proclivities so far, but indulgence can make you reckless.

If given a chance — and privacy is hard enough to come by when you live at school — then Ernesto would have their every encounter be this: pressed into the shadows behind a closed door, stealing kisses and untucking each other’s shirts. But Héctor won’t let it. Their friendship had been a dozen things before they added this to it, and it still needs to be those things.

And it’s rough, no matter your age, to realize that the general story (pick a trade, marry a woman, work your land honestly, raise your children and bring them to church) will have nothing to do with you. Just because Héctor went through it younger doesn’t mean it’s any less hard for Ernesto now, twenty years old and finally confronting it.

Fortunately, Héctor accepted his role a long time ago — talk sense into him, please, niño — and works hard to be patient with Ernesto’s fluctuating moods. It’s not as hard as it sounds; Héctor’s got his own giddiness.

“Hey, hey, slow down!” Ernesto complains, laying his hand flat against the bridge of his guitar in defeat. “I can’t go that fast.”

“Oh, sorry,” Héctor lifts off the strings.

Interrupted, the guitar hums out its abandoned chord, and Héctor laughs and gives in, plucking a string of notes so joyful and fast it’s like footsteps running up a staircase. It hurts, and Ernesto only gets three notes into another attempted pursuit before he fumbles, stops, and just watches: Héctor is stupidly, overwhelmingly aware of his eyes, moving from his fingers to his face, where his tongue is stuck into the corner of his mouth in concentration.

He pulls the rift off with a breathless “ha!” and a gesture, and then says, “what?” at the look Ernesto gives him.

Ernesto just shakes his head and sets his guitar aside. He can’t do what Héctor just did, not even if he practiced for years.

What?” Héctor says again, with growing awareness.

They’re both sitting on a patch of earth that runs a swath behind the school, turning downhill towards the fenceline that overlooks the rest of town. Usually, it’s too runny back here to practice, but the sun’s out today, fat and yellow and contented, and the ground’s firmed up. Everyone else is out. Héctor had not been unaware of this, when Ernesto suggested it as a place to practice.

“What?” he says for the third time.

Ernesto takes his guitar, and Héctor’s still grinning and protesting when he pushes him back against the ground and settles between his legs.

“You,” he says, insensibly.

Inside his chest, Héctor’s heart plays its own notes, a chaotic ascending rush too fast to follow, and he pulls Ernesto down on top of him.

 

*

 

He can’t forget what Ernesto said by that turquoise and gold mosaic: that he can’t be this and still be somebody. Ernesto de la Cruz, too used to seizing every moment that passed close enough to grasp, cannot easily trust that Héctor is a constant. That Héctor will want to kiss him tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that.

He makes things up sometimes, the nuns always said.

He’ll make his own version of truth and then simply refuse to believe anything else until everyone else accepts it too, and Héctor worries that one of those versions of truth Ernesto’s braced himself for is the one where Héctor doesn’t love him.

After all, the hero in any story only gets to be the hero through painful sacrifice.

“Have you kissed the Consequela girl?”

“Imelda,” Héctor corrects in exasperation, turning down the blanket on the empty bed. “We sing with her twice a week, Ernesto, she’s not ’the Consequela girl’, don’t be a donkey.”

Together, they lift the mattress so they can tuck the tails in. Even washed, it still smells like Gilberto; a familiar combination of teenage boy foot odor and that ashtray smell that comes from being careless with cigarettes in bed. Gilberto had gotten a letter from the mayor’s office in his hometown, regretting to inform him that the rebels had struck, and if he did not return with intent to produce revenue from his dead parents’ land then it was liable to be claimed for property taxes. He left on the morning train.

“You should,” Ernesto says suddenly.

Héctor lifts his head. “Why?”

He tries not to think about it, because when he does it’s like being hit — the thought that he, Héctor Rivera, little pelón Héctor with the unfortunate nose and ears, could know the two most beautiful people in San Juan Albán and kiss them too. It’s too much like tempting fate. Like, you can kiss one or the other, Héctor, but try to kiss them both and you’ll lose them both.

He listens to his elders. He knows what people with more than one partner are called.

“You just should,” Ernesto says belligerently, turning away.

Héctor shakes his head. “I don’t think her uncle wants me kissing her.”

He snorts. “Hang what her uncle thinks! Fancy pants señor. You’re not kissing him, you’re kissing her, and she wants you to!”

There’s a feeling in his chest like he’s laced it up too tight, with no room for his heart or lungs to expand or move around. He breathes shallowly.

“No,” he shakes his head again. “No, you’re wrong.”

Skinny chest, skinny arms, skinny legs. Disproportionate hands, disproportionate feet. (He really hopes those are done growing — any more and he’ll outgrow the largest size the zapatero keeps in stock.) No. It’s a nice thought, but. He got lucky enough that Ernesto is stupid about him, it can’t be true for Imelda, too.

He cuts a glance in Ernesto’s direction, curious in spite of himself. “What makes you think so?”

Ernesto huffs and rolls his eyes —

— and a terrible realization strikes Héctor, all at once.

His heart turns over, goes cold, and drops right into his stomach.

“You already think you know how this is going to end!” he exclaims, slamming his hands down on the mattress and leaning across it so he can hiss, “you think that once I kiss her I’m going to realize that I was wrong, surprise, it turns out I’m not like you at all —“

The whites of Ernesto’s eyes show. “Héctor!” he grits out, teeth clenched.

There’s no one else in the dormitories to hear them, but secrecy is instinctive, and they dart a look around.

Héctor drops his voice.

“— look at you!” Anger snaps inside of him like a chord overstrung; a hard reverberation, rattling him. “You’ve already decided that you’re right, and now you’re trying to manipulate me into agreeing with you!”

Ernesto leans away from him, and heaves the kind of sigh that’s as dismissive as it is infuriating.

“There’s no reasoning with you when you’re like this,” he says.

“When I’m like this? Let me tell you, that’s not how this story is going to go! I won’t let it. And if you think otherwise, watch me.”

He says it with absolute certainty. The same certainty he gets sometimes in church, listening to whoever’s on the pipe organ and knowing, knowing that he can take the music apart and rearrange it, make some new composition. That he can make it sound better.

He wants to do the same thing here.

He wants to take this sad old song — men don’t love men, women don’t love women, not here, not in Mexico — and recompose it completely.

 

*

 

The horsemaster’s youngest niece makes him feel seen, which isn’t something he has a lot of experience with.

He never knows what he’s going to get with her, like one of those stones that seems made of a hundred different colors depending on how you hold it up to the light, and whenever they’re around a cousin or an aunt she snuffs every sparkle of it out but Héctor sees it. He’s not imagining it. Imelda Consequela Flores has been criminally overlooked her whole life.

He’s never been able to predict what she’s going to say to him next, and he thought it’d be aggravating, but on Imelda it just leaves him dizzy, stunned, desperate to talk to her again, as soon as possible.

And it kills him —

— it almost kills him, that in this Imelda and Ernesto are completely alike: that love catches them so off guard that their first instinct is disbelief. They think they can’t have this happiness. It doesn’t look enough like sacrifice.

But they can. They can have it. They can have him and love him too.

And if the only thing Héctor accomplishes in this life is to convince them of that — it won’t be such a bad life.

 

*

 

When he kisses Imelda, she grabs him by the ears and then in what seems like the blink of an eye he’s standing with Ernesto outside the horsemaster’s enormous wrought-iron gate, letting Ernesto pull him around, tug on his jacket until it sits in a neat line across his shoulders, and knock him in the knees to remind him to straighten out his slouch. They’ve got to convince Don Consequela that he needs to let Imelda get married, like, soon, like, there’s a nine month deadline kind of soon. Less than.

Ernesto looks him over one more time and says, “You know, this isn’t … quite what I meant.”

“Yes, it is,” Héctor answers without thinking. “No one wanted this story more than you.”

“I —“ Ernesto blinks at him, looking caught out. “Because … I want you to be happy, my friend.”

Héctor spares him a reassuring smile. “I know,” he says, and doesn’t elaborate. Ernesto still has the grand tale of their lives outlined in his head: all everyone else has to do is fall in line and follow the script, and here it is, Héctor’s highlighted part. Our hero’s best friend marries the girl he loves. Our hero stoically toasts them and wishes them every happiness. The stage light dims on his silhouette, alone.

He smiles at the side of Ernesto’s head, inexpressibly fond of him for being unable to resist the most Catholic of longings, to be seen suffering while everyone around you is happy and to think it somehow makes you holy.

What an ass.

“You’re an ass,” he tells him, for good measure.

“Um,” says Ernesto.

 

*

 

Outside, a group’s singing for posada; Héctor can see the glow of their little candles sheltered in their cupped hands every time the door swings open, letting in the smell of rain-damp wood and wet horses.

He paces back and forth behind Ernesto, who keeps one foot propped on the bar and one eye idly tracking him as he walks and talks.

“— have to ask her to marry me,” comes out of him. “It has to be me who asks this time, you see that, right? Of course you see that. It’s obvious. But — she doesn’t have the obligation any more, she might not want to. She didn’t want to get married in the first place, remember?” He stops, snaps his fingers, and keeps pacing. “Who am I kidding, she deserves better options. We should let her have that, right?”

“I would love to see you suggest it, Héctor,” Ernesto could be more sarcastic, but he’d have to try. “Two older brothers, I’m sure she knows how to throw a punch.”

“That has nothing to do with her brothers,” Héctor says by rote. “She’s just like that.”

Ernesto sighs.

On his other side, a clubfooted lumberer takes note of the first pause in Héctor’s stream of babble and sucks at his teeth.

“He all right?” he asks with a jerk of his head.

Ernesto lifts his chin off his hand long enough to answer, “He and his girl thought she’d been … embarrassed, and now that it’s clear she isn’t, he’s convinced himself that she’s not interested in marrying him anymore.”

“Ay,” says the lumberer, and then — with surprising grace, clearly used to maneuvering on the turned-in foot — he swings himself around to intercept Héctor on his next pass, planting his drink into his open hand.

“This is for you, niño,” he says, with the loud magnanimity of the deeply drunk.

“Oh,” says Héctor. “Thank you.”

The lumberer claps him on the back and then goes back to his fellows, leaving Héctor to blink in bemusement at the offering, before he comes to set it down on the countertop next to Ernesto.

“She should have that opportunity,” he declares, like he hadn’t heard a word of that exchange, and Ernesto heaves a sigh and shifts to find a more comfortable position, settling in for the long haul. He casts a hopeful look in the bartender’s direction, but they’re busy, of course. “Ernesto. She should be allowed to pursue options that aren’t us. I mean, I wouldn’t want to marry me either. It’s okay. It’s … ”

He trails off and shrugs, helpless with it.

What he really wishes is that someone had been more honest with them. What they’d done in the stables hadn’t seemed any different from his other encounters — harmless and fun, assuming you didn’t get caught. If he’d known the risk, maybe they wouldn’t have gotten so carried away. But they were just told DON’T DO THAT! without ever being told why, and —

And her family blames her. They’re never going to trust him again, but they’re blaming her.

God, he wants her out of there.

But if there’s a chance she could have something better …

There’s a long pause. Ernesto doesn’t say anything, which is so uncharacteristic that Héctor looks up. The face tipped up to him is transparent with disbelief.

“You think she doesn’t want you?” He’s incredulous.

Héctor pinwheels his hands, “No, no, I think she likes me, but liking me is a lot different than wanting to marry me.”

“Héctor,” Ernesto says patiently. “My friend, the song in my heart,” and Héctor startles, pulling back and looking at him with frank astonishment, because endearments from Ernesto are rare. “Believe me when I tell you that she is crazy for you. Like, there’s got to be something wrong with her, I’ve never seen anyone be about you the way she is. She — she —”

He gestures expansively, searching for the words.

“She lights up when you talk to her! No one does that!”

“Eh?”

Imelda treats everyone with the same show of caustic wit, like she can’t imagine a conversation that doesn’t involve flaying someone alive, and she’s never spared him, not even once, but … maybe … maybe she smiles more, when it’s him?

Ernesto points at him. “You’re not going to meet someone like her again, someone … someone you can marry like her,” and this he hides quickly, ducking behind the glass in his hand. Héctor’s heart squeezes, and he steals a quick look around to make sure no one is interested in them at all, before settling a hand on the back of his neck, for all appearances just a friend comforting his friend. He runs his thumb against the nape of Ernesto’s neck, and doesn’t miss him shiver under his hand, the way the hairs on the back of his neck rise to meet him.

“I want to marry her,” he murmurs, as quietly as he dares, aware they are on some fragile ground now. “Very much, but … Ernesto, it’s not — not just because I can’t marry you, and it doesn’t mean I —“

He flounders, suddenly uncertain, but.

No guts, no glory, Héctor, sing it with feeling or don’t sing it at all.

“It doesn’t mean I love you less,” comes out of him in a rush, and it flattens them both. “You know that. You’ve got to know that.”

They look at each other, and then, simultaneously, they lean back.

The people outside have stopped singing. Rain streaks the windows, constantly shifting with the changes in light.

Silence stretches into shape between them, while Ernesto studiously contemplates the bottom of his glass and Héctor tries to remember where his had come from. He doesn’t remember asking for this.

“Besides,” he sets the drink down. “You’re the one who talked my ear off about how she’s twice as talented as anyone we’ve ever met. You can’t go back on that now.”

“I wasn’t going to!”

He stands, going to flag down the bartender. As he passes, he puts a hand on Ernesto’s shoulder.

“If she stays with that family,” he tells him, soft. “They’ll kill her. And you know it.”

 

*

 

Being Figaro’s most senior apprentice means Ernesto gets the single bed by the door. It’s both a privilege and a nuisance, but Héctor’s grateful for it now: it means he doesn’t have to tiptoe past anybody else in order to lift the corner of the blanket and slide in beside him.

Ernesto’s eyes come open immediately — he hadn’t been asleep — and he props himself up on his elbow to block as much of Héctor from view as possible. Before, when someone else had been senior apprentice and they were in the bunks with the rest, it had been easy to shimmy down to join Ernesto in his, so they could stay up stupidly late whispering plans to each other and be useless and exhausted the next day. It had stopped, mostly, when Héctor was no longer small enough to hide.

“Did she say yes?” Ernesto asks him.

Héctor turns his head, mashing his face against Ernesto’s shoulder. “She said yes.”

He feels the breath they both release, at once.

“She’s going to be my wife,” he whispers wonderingly. “She’s going to be the only wife I’ll ever have — me, me. She picked me back. Anybody else she could have had and she picked me back. Ernesto.”

His voice cracks, and Ernesto rolls over, half-pinning Héctor beneath him. His arms go all the way around him, crushing him close — and just in time. Héctor might fly apart, without it. This is happening to him. This is going to happen.

“I love you,” he says, inaudibly, helplessly. “I love you, I love you.”

Each one flays a little bit off the end of his life, and if feeling this much is going to kill him, it might as well kill him. If there’s anyone in this world who knows just how easily Héctor would be to kill — but Ernesto just grabs him by the head and kisses him very hard on the bridge of the nose, the only landmark he can reliably (and silently) reach.

“I am,” he says, tucking his thumbs over Héctor’s cheeks, “so very glad she is coming with us. It’s too much to carry on its own, we’ll have to take turns. It’ll be bearable that way.”

“What will?”

Ernesto kisses him again, right between his eyes. “You,” and it’s the closest he ever comes to saying I love you too.

 

*

 

“You and Ernesto talked about marrying me before you ever knew I was with child.”

“Yes,” Héctor says, and then immediately, “That was the plan. Marry you and go. Our plans aren’t very sophisticated, most of the time. So the … the child changed that, but not what we felt. Which one’s mine?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” Imelda answers. “They’re pretty evenly matched, so I guess the deciding factor is which one is least likely to buck you off.”

He widens his eyes. “Is that probable?”

Imelda, infuriatingly, just smiles at him and shrugs.

But Óscar Consequela pokes his head over the stall door in much the same manner the horses do and says, “I’ve never met a more patient pair, Héctor, it is statistically unlikely they’re going to murder you.”

“Oh,” says Héctor. “Thank you.”

He makes another wide-eyed face at Imelda, who just says, “Getting Ernesto in here to meet them will be harder.”

“Getting me in here was hard enough.” Imelda’s brothers came with them to introduce them to their new horses, so they do have a chaperone, but since the twins’ track record for keeping Imelda out of … trouble proved imperfect, Héctor’s pretty sure a small committee of her aunts convened in a hurry. That horsey-faced cousin has been hovering at her post the whole time they’ve been here.

Funnily enough, it’s not necessary this time. They are in here to meet Óscar and Felipe’s horses. That’s it.

It’s not the stable you usually take me to, he’d said in an undertone to Imelda when they entered, and, ow! when she’d hit him, very hard, across the chest.

The mare, a muscular bay with a stodgy, solid look to her, drops her head to look at a point somewhere to the left of Héctor’s ear, and it hits him, all at once, how much they still have left to do. It’s like … it’s like trying to dismantle that stall door, hinges and wood and all, so they can bolt for that square of light at the other end, when they have no idea what’s waiting for them there. What if they break them out, him and Imelda and Ernesto and the twins, and everything’s worse?

“How are we going to do this?” he whispers, too low for the brothers to hear.

Imelda gives him a sharp look.

The shape of her face is different. Héctor doesn’t know if carrying the baby did that, or if losing it did.

“Your first mistake,” she says, “is thinking we’re going to need anyone’s permission. To be you and me, to be you and him. Who do you think we’re going to ask? Padre Luis? God? No,” she answers herself with a practical nod. “We’re just going to do it, on our own. Marry me, and go.”

 

*

 

“Now that you’re on the other side of it,” Yun starts.

The atole had gotten cold by the time Héctor managed to make the climb down to Shanty-town. It extends from the base of the Mayan pyramids like a schoolyard popsicle-stick creation, new construction tied to the bigger structure at the angle least likely to let it float away.

Outside, he can hear the shrieking laughter of the tías playing their card game. The breeze off the water lifts the curtains, stirring the patterned skeletal faces of the apostles with their gold halos that Yun insisted they buy instead of a more practical fabric, and he gives the sediment in the bottom of his cup a desultory swirl. A stack of books sits on a milk crate nearby, which Yun’s been meaning to donate; Héctor can’t read Chinese, but he likes the way the script looks, like little fortresses built on a page.

“Hey,” and Yun knocks him with his kneecap to get his attention.

“I’m listening,” he says.

The waters of death are uncomfortably dark, even in broad daylight. Why were Los Olvidados forced to come down here? Everything reminds you; you are here to be forgotten, you are here because we don’t want to look at you.

“Now that you’re here and not there,” Yun starts again. “When’s a time in your life that you know you were feeling the effects of el santo?”

Héctor tilts his head. To be el santo is to change the Land of the Living for the better; without the Land of the Dead beneath it to generate its light, the Land of the Living would be a boring, soulless place to be.

Even here, with only a skinny dog alebrije with giraffe spots for company, and Héctor’s daily downward visits, Yun still tries. Being el santo to a firework stand means that if he’s uninspiring, then his fireworks are uninspiring — and worse, kids with uninspiring fireworks tend to get hurt.

He swirls his legs around in the water, watching bubbles rush through the narrow space between his tibia and fibula, and thinks about it.

There are a lot of moments in his life he can point to and say, then. I felt the bolt of inspiration then.

Everything Coco did felt miraculous, like he wanted everyone to see, but he doesn’t think he can thank el santo for that. That’s just Coco.

No —

The one time he felt like divinity, absolutely god-touched in his luck and unable to believe the circumstances that aligned for him to be here, was when he was pressed in between Ernesto and Imelda’s bodies, Imelda flush to his front and Ernesto solid and hot against his back. Hold still, they keep admonishing him, because Héctor was being useless; twisting around, squirming too much, getting lost in kissing one of them and then jolting, realizing he hadn’t been kissing the other and needing to do that immediately. Rinse, repeat, until they lost patience. Ernesto’s hands had slid over Héctor’s waist and encountered Imelda’s already there, over his belt, and Héctor had to seize them both to hold them still or it was going to be over embarrassingly fast.

Yun takes one look at his face and huffs a laugh, part-scandalized, part-appreciative.

“Díos mio, Héctor,” he says.

Héctor shrugs, feigning modesty. “What can I say? I had two partners with … strong personalities. I had a lot of sex.”

Yun cackles. “So what you’re saying,” the alebrije lifts its head from his lap, ears perked, “is that you were a full-time job for someone down here?”

“No! I don’t think it’s possible to just be el santo to someone’s —“

“Don’t say it!” Yun yelps, and laughs harder.

Héctor lets it go with a grin.

After a beat, Yun gives the alebrije a quick scratch that it squints up joyfully for, then ventures, “but you haven’t … there isn’t anyone here you’ve touched tattoos with?”

Oh, sure, and Héctor’s the crass one.

“Nah,” he says, with a cheerful hike of his bones. He has a wife in the Land of the Living. There’s nothing here that matters to him more than that.

Around them, Shanty-town groans as it floats and bumps up against itself. Somewhere in the distance, a few Los Olividados sing something without much tune. He can’t hear the tías anymore. Their cards drift on top of the water, blown off the empty table.

 

*

 

“You’re the mastermind here,” he murmurs in her ear, carefully peeling the sweaty hairs from her cheek and pushing them back so he can mouth up the side of her face. “I’m following your lead.”

“Wise,” she allows, with the magnanimity that comes with being mostly naked.

Their temporary gatehouse room has roughly the depth and dimensions of an envelope, much too small for this, and Héctor’s already painfully jammed his toe on the guitar case under the bed, which stopped the proceedings long enough for them to mercilessly mock his hopping. It’s too warm, too close, and Héctor pulls Imelda’s back up against his chest, burying his nose against the nape of her neck.

His hands wander for a mindless, greedy moment, stroking up her stomach and pulling at her shift, and he’s struck mute with sudden marvel; that this is his wife. That the girl who sang “Gloria” in the Consequela hacienda until the birds fell quiet to listen went and married him.

“I’d follow you anywhere,” he tells her, heartsore with it, and Imelda reaches back to give his face a fond pat.

“Ay,” she says suddenly — but she’s not talking to him. “What’s wrong?”

“I —“ Ernesto starts, then shakes his head. When their eyes meet, a frisson of tension passes between them.

Héctor looks from one to the other, frowning. In the dark, it’s hard to see anything but the reflective gleam of Ernesto’s open eyes, but Héctor’s got a lot of practice, and he’d recognize them, Ernesto and Imelda both, in all their moods. This better not be this stupid old thing again, where Ernesto’s convinced he’s secondhand in Héctor’s life because Imelda’s a woman, and man-loves-woman is how the story goes; where Imelda’s convinced she’s secondhand because Ernesto came first.

How many times does he have to tell them —

Imelda straightens up with sudden realization, pulling out of Héctor’s hands and and tipping forward. “Are you nervous?”

“No!” Ernesto protests, audibly nervous.

She laughs, and it’s such an honest, shaky, empathetic sound that Ernesto doesn’t even bristle. She steps towards him, hands outstretched.

“Don’t be nervous,” she says softly, and turns his hands over. She unbuttons his cuffs and pushes them up his forearms, baring his skin inch-by-inch, her head down, movements precise. The sight of it — Imelda with her shift pulled askew, her crown of hair tugged this way and that, with her hands on Ernesto’s arms and the look on his face as he watches her do it — sends a sudden blink of desire through Héctor, so strong it closes his throat.

“All of it,” Imelda continues. “It’s inside of you, isn’t it? The future you want. So what do you do?”

“You …”

“You let it sing you,” she agrees, and Ernesto grabs her by the face and kisses her before she can say anything else, and Héctor’s heart is at once two sizes too big for his chest, for his bones, for even this room in the wall in the mountains.

 

*

 

Once he catches his breath, he shifts positions. His knees creak in protest, which makes him huff in surprise and then laugh: he didn’t think he’d been that hard on them. He pulls the pillow out from underneath his hips, grimacing at the stain on it, and flips it to the other side before stretching out with a boneless sigh.

He lays there, drifting in and out, absently running his fingers over the worn patches in the blanket. He picks at a hole like it’s a guitar string. Then the covers shift as Ernesto’s weight pulls them towards him, kneeling at the edge, and Héctor cracks an eye open to accept the wet cloth handed to him.

“There’s not enough clean water for much,” he tells him, apologetic. “Not if you want it to boil for breakfast, too.”

Héctor considers this. Immediately, the sweat cooling along his spine and at the nape of his neck demand his attention. He runs his tongue along the backs of his teeth, feeling fuzz. Now that he knows clean isn’t an option, it’s the only thing he wants.

“A bath should be in order, next we find a place with good plumbing,” he says, and drags himself out of bed to use the washcloth for the most important places; armpits, groin, the backs of his thighs. “Didn’t you say they’re building a hotel in — what’s it — San Domingo Tehuantepec?”

“It’s across the street from that big blue-and-white church, yeah.”

Behind him, Ernesto stretches his bum knee, trying to work out its stiffness. Héctor can hear the unhappy way it clicks with each bend.

When he’s done, he flops back down next to him, and Ernesto spares him a lazy smile.

“You look good,” he murmurs.

Héctor hums back, smiling without opening his eyes. “Yeah, I bet.”

They’d pulled the window shut and latched it, the inn being too close to the road to risk someone’s brat peeking in with prurient interest at the noise and outing them. But the moon is brightly curious, and when Ernesto props himself up on his elbow over him, the slats make slivers of light out of his face, and Héctor reaches out to trace them with his fingers.

There’s something there — something he’s almost got, about moonlight aching, parting every darkness just for the excuse to rush in to young lovers, and he doesn’t realize he’s humming until Ernesto leans down, peering at his mouth.

“What is that?” he wants to know.

And he laughs when Héctor pushes up to kiss him, feeling so damn swollen and heartsick, leaking affection everywhere.

“I’m serious, my friend,” he says, chuckling, one hand around the back of Héctor’s neck to hold him there. “How do you do that? I don’t even see an instrument and yet I hear it. Everything that comes out of you must be magic.”

Héctor just shakes his head. How do you even explain it?

It’s like looking at a map and knowing that, a long time ago, somebody sat down and decided that Mexico ended somewhere, that there was going to be an edge where it stopped. But get on a horse and you’ll learn there’s no way to see all of it, not in one lifetime, not in the next. There’s always more of it, and more, and no map will ever get it right.

And if all you do is look at a map, then you’ll never understand that Mexico goes with its people wherever they are; you can see it when they kiss their babies and their grandmothers, you can see it in how they cook food for their dead, you can see it when they’re singing and dancing, and it has no edges. There’s no place where it stops.

That, he thinks, is how love works too.

Héctor’s love for his country, his love for his wife, his love for Ernesto —

You unfold it, and unfold it, and unfold it again, and all of it is without end.

“It already exists, Ernesto. I just write it down. But you — you’re the one who fills it up, puts it on and wears it. It sounds nothing like how you make it sound.”

Imelda told him once that Ernesto could make people believe anything, and it’s true: when people listen to Ernesto play Héctor’s songs, he makes them believe in them. They become real.

“Oh, yeah?” Ernesto gathers him close, biting his chin with a playful, “I’ll fill you up,” and Héctor catches them, rolls them over, says, “I thought you already did.”

This time, Ernesto lifts his hips in a way that makes them both groan in appreciation.

Héctor plants his elbows and leans down to kiss him, sloppy and affectionate, and Ernesto runs his hands up and down his flanks.

Soon, the pitch of their breathing changes, and he detaches himself with difficulty to remind him, “We won’t have enough water to clean ourselves up again at this rate.”

Ernesto’s already decided. “Hang that, maybe I want to smell like you.”

“That’s gross, Ernesto,” Héctor replies patiently.

But he does forget about the song, at least for a little while.

 

*

 

Santa Cecilia, reinvented, is a strange place to be, like finding an old letter at the bottom of a suitcase and being surprised at the sight of your own handwriting. Now that he’s older, he can suddenly see the rough patches, the effort it took, and perhaps most importantly, the ways in which he’s changed.

But there’s nowhere else he wants Imelda to be. She can’t be alone, not after last time —

And oh — oh, Héctor is a husband.

This isn’t news, of course, but somehow being here in his hometown makes it more true. Maybe it’s because there are people here who knew him when he was nothing to nobody, not anybody’s son, not anybody’s brother, certainly not anybody to love. Madre Emmanuela, Sister Lupe, Francis Esposito the furniture-maker — it means more to show them how far he’s come, than any stranger they met along the way.

He loves that anyone who looks at him can tell — oh, that’s Héctor Rivera, a husband going home to his wife. It makes him an easy target for the flower girls at market, the ones minding the stalls for their mothers.

Ernesto teases him about it, but if Héctor’s fingers dig into his pockets in the face of their offerings, the forget-me-nots and bachelor’s buttons and sunflowers with their blacked-out eyes, and meet nothing but seam, Ernesto will be there with the correct change waiting when he turns around. He feels bruised about that, too, tender for being so known.

The work they get roped into isn’t what either of them want, but it doesn’t matter. Héctor got a lot of practice in construction with the Zapotecs, and since the work is mostly standing around bullshitting as they wait for one guy with the right equipment, Ernesto picks it up fast.

(More importantly — he got a lot of practice singing with the Zapotec workmen, and so brings that into this new environment, too. Everyone loves a good labor song, steady and rhythmic, like a corrido — but with dirtier lyrics, usually.)

It’s what you do. You see something that needs to get done, you do it.

And, like everyone does, you live your days just to be able to go home at night, and it’s worth it for the moment he comes through the gate and calls out, “Guess who stapled their thumb today! Again!” and Imelda responds without missing a beat, “was it Ernesto’s playing hand, or the spare?” and Ernesto looks up from the bandages and says, “hey!” Héctor finds his wife reshoeing horses or patching leaks in the shed, and the flowers pale in comparison to her face when she looks at them, sweaty and deeply unimpressed.

“I thought you’re supposed to give bouquets after a performance,” she says, grabbing a rag to wipe her hands.

“I appreciate the art every time,” Héctor assures her, and then pops his eyebrows up, like, that was good, right? Told you I can be suave!

Imelda and Ernesto exchange a deeply long-suffering look, and in his shoes, Héctor wriggles his toes in delight.

 

*

 

If the happiest Imelda has ever been was on the open road, the campfires and the cowboys and a map of Mexico made edgeless in that place inside her chest where other people kept their hearts, and if the happiest Ernesto will ever be is yet to come, then the happiest Héctor ever is is in Santa Cecilia, these months he has it all: his best friend, his wife, a job and a house, his music, and a baby on the way.

The bigger Imelda gets, however, the less she’s able to hide her apprehension.

She doesn’t talk to him about it. Snaps her teeth when he tries. Some things you just can’t comfort.

He hadn’t gotten to see much of the process, last time — Imelda wore loose clothing for months, and then it wasn’t necessary anymore.

This time, it’s as if there’s her and her tough stomach, and then all of a sudden she’s huge, all parts of her pulled towards the swell of the baby inside of her. It’s as if it’s the one carrying her; she’s just along for the ride.

She sees Ernesto keeping his distance and mistakes it for boredom. That’s unusual, because they don’t often waste time misunderstanding each other. If at ever they spoke two different languages, Héctor’s name became the one thing they had in common, the one word that had to stand for everything. Imelda and Ernesto can communicate entirely by Héctor.

It’s Ernesto who worries about what they’ll do when Imelda safely delivers the baby ... and what they’ll do if she doesn’t.

Héctor won’t think about it, refuses, so Ernesto takes that worry and puts it on his own broad shoulders. He makes plans. If despite their every precaution they lose her. Childbirth takes the lives of women the same awful senseless way soldiering does.

She comes out into the courtyard one night just as Héctor’s pulling his guitar from his case, and turns the chairs away from the table so she can lower herself into one and prop her heels up on the other. He settles on the steps by her feet, and as soon as he starts plucking strings, checking the tuning, she groans in protest.

“No, don’t,” and she lifts herself up to free her evening braid out from under her. “It tilts towards you when you do that and I hate feeling lopsided.”

Héctor blinks. “It does?”

He scoots closer. With one hand he picks at a series of absentminded notes, the other going to the high rise of Imelda’s stomach.

Immediately, something rolls against his palm.

Héctor barks a startled laugh, eyebrows flying up. He’s felt it move before, but never in response to him, like it was alive and could hear him. Imelda smiles, that pinched uncomfortable look starting to ease from her face.

She nudges her hand up alongside his, and says, “I wonder what my singing sounds like, to it.”

“Oh,” Héctor breathes faintly. “Like the whole world, I bet. You’re everything it knows — imagine if your sky and earth and water all sang to you. Oh.”

He leans in, touching his forehead there where his hand had been.

“Hello in there,” he murmurs. Imelda’s knuckle strokes along his brow, catching a lock of his hair and wrapping it around her fingertip. “I hope you’re ready. We’re so excited to meet you and teach you everything we know.”

“Héctor,” Imelda says.

He looks up at her, smiles, and closes his eyes so he can press in and whisper, like it’s a secret, “Your parents are great musicians, but you’ll be even better, you just watch.”

 

*

 

The Jalisco musician keeps his own hacienda house in the south of Mexico, and it makes Casa Consequela look like something a child would construct out of cardboard and glue together for a Sunday school project. Héctor and Ernesto hover inside the grand entrance hall, gripping their guitar cases white-knuckled.

(He called them talented! He called them “young patrons of the art”! Héctor has no idea what that means, but he’s thrilled!)

He’d invited them here. They didn’t think they were being sent to the moon.

The man himself appears out of the crowd, greeting them by name and sharing a joyful laugh at the enraptured expression on Ernesto’s face.

“Is it too much?” he guesses.

“No, no,” Héctor and Ernesto say in unison, too quickly.

Other guests are already calling for him, and he departs with a, “enjoy the party, músicos!” And even Ernesto, who could make rice and beans out of being the center of attention, can’t help his relief at being out from under that spotlight.

It’d be a lie to say that Héctor isn’t impressed, but there’s a part of his brain he can’t turn off and it keeps cataloguing the things he sees, comparing them to whatever their equivalents would be in his world — and it’s true, isn’t it, that the rich simply don’t live like anyone else. He’s on an alien planet, trying to identify things by common function.

We fought a war because we wanted there to be less disparity between the rich and the poor, his brain points out to him, following the eddies of the crowd, which lead them inexorably to the dining hall. He clocks attendants with polished buttons and white gloves. The plates feel as thin as bird bones in his hand, and he wants to call it china but doesn’t know enough to say for certain.

Mutely, he sets the plate back down on the stack.

People love Ernesto because he’s not some rich Castellan boy, he thinks. He’s someone they can relate to.

And, If we were this rich would we be like President Díaz? Like President Carranza? Would money make us forget that the poor are still poor?

Would we trick ourselves into thinking the poor need to stay poor so we can stay rich?

My family died because we could not keep our food clean, because we had no choice when Díaz diseased our only source of water. And here, they wash their tablecloths with water soaked in rose petals. I can smell it.

“Why aren’t you eating?” Ernesto asks him suddenly.

Without thinking, Héctor responds, “I’m not hungry,” and it earns him a startled lift of Ernesto’s eyebrows.

“You’re turning down food? At a party? Are you sure you’re Oaxacan? Mexican, even.”

“Very funny,” Héctor says.

There’s silverware. He picks a piece up — it’s heavy, and again, his brain ticks at him compulsively, too expensive for real people — and tries not to show how long it’s been since he used any. You don’t need to, cooking over campfires and in his own home, with his wife. The nuns made sure they knew how, of course, and Papá Figaro insisted on it when he wanted them to dine with the parents and be as winsome as possible. He sets it back down.

Ernesto nudges him.

“Look — flour tortillas,” he points out, gesturing further down the table. “God help us, does he know he’s in the south?”

And Héctor snorts a laugh in spite of himself.

Ernesto flashes a smile at him, visibly relieved. “There you are,” he says, and slowly, Héctor’s discomfort eases through.

After the eating, there’s singing, which is what they crossed three states to hear, to be a part of, and after that, dizzy from the rush, they find themselves in a hallway on the second floor. Glass windows stretch from floor to ceiling, and with the house lit up like this, they must be visible for miles in every direction. He imagines a stunning view, in daylight, of mountains and valley both.

“This is what I dreamed about,” Ernesto tells him, quiet. He’s looking down at the braziers that light the path to the gate.

Héctor, in turn, is looking at him.

Yeah, he thinks. I know what you mean.

He hasn’t had anything to drink — it’d be stupid to, on an empty stomach — but he feels precariously flushed anyway, swollen beyond what his bones can carry, and it’s tipping him strangely.

There’s nothing like music, the way people sing it when they mean it, to make him love Mexico so much it hurts.

(Later, sometime in the 80’s, he’ll live next door to a classicist in Shanty-town who reminds him a lot of that Guerreran woman they met in the wilderness, the one guarding artworks from opportunists and battlefield scalpers, and she’ll tell him that while Mexico may have gained independence in the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the Revolution that it started acting like a real country, and not just thirty separate states operating in their own interests. And what was the fastest way to take a Oaxacan and a Guerreran and turn them into Mexicans? Well, music, of course. The Jalisco man for whom mariachi was named, the corridos and rancheros of the war, and yes, even Ernesto de la Cruz’s swelling bolero sound — that became one of the most unifying pieces of culture they had. The rest fell into place after that.)

“It is … spectacular,” he murmurs, still feeling dizzy.

And, “remember our bunks in Santa Cecilia? At the church? How is it we wound up here, do you think?”

He means it rhetorically, so it’s a surprise, the sudden way Ernesto’s hand snaps out, closing around his wrist.

“Because we worked for it,” he says, with intensity. “Because we seized every chance we saw and made it true: the traveling show, Figaro’s apprenticeship — “

“Imelda?” Héctor interjects.

“We seized Imelda too,” he agrees, even though it’s more that Imelda seized them — they didn’t steal her, with their notoriously poor track record for thievery, she found the direction they were going in and stole herself. “And we’ll get here, Héctor, because we won’t let it pass us by.”

“You believe that?”

The extravagance makes him want to squirm, but to sing like that, with a crowd who loves it as much as you do?

Ernesto catches him by the elbow, holding him up.

“Yes,” he says. “Together. Our dream hasn’t changed, Héctor. Where I go, you’re coming too.”

Héctor doesn’t even check to see if the coast is clear: he grabs Ernesto by the ear and pulls his mouth up to his.

They kiss, stupid, frantic, deep. Héctor hooks his elbow around Ernesto’s neck, crushing them so tightly together that this time he really does believe they’ll seal into each other’s bones.

“We’ll have this,” Ernesto promises, right up against his mouth, his hands under Héctor’s jacket, holding him by the ribs the same way Héctor had held that plate — keenly aware of its value, uncertain if he should be handling it and wanting it desperately anyway. “We’ll have this and no one will care whose room we sleep in at night.”

“Yes,” Héctor breathes back, dizzy, sold. “Yes, yes, whatever it takes. Make it come true.”

 

*

 

And then.

A telegram.

 

*

 

Ernesto comes through the door preceded by the large shape of the basket in his arms.

“No dejaré de quererte, no dejaré —” he’s singing to himself, up until he spots Héctor and pauses. Through the open door, Héctor hears Imelda’s voice, carrying on with the verse. The two of them had sought the refuge of the cool kitchen interior so they could peel marigold petals for the holiday, leaving Héctor in the main room, pinned underneath the sleeping Coco the way other people get trapped by sleeping cats, terrified to disturb her.

He shifts the basket and puts a hand on the back of the settee, peering down at him.

“Héctor,” he says, “song of my heart,” with affection sunk so deep into his voice Héctor thinks he could put his hands in an arrowhead formation and dive and he’d still never touch bottom, and he’s feeling too much, and Ernesto is too big and carrying too many petals and —

Héctor licks his dry mouth, before saying in a voice both small and cornered, “Everything’s changed, Ernesto.”

For a beat, Ernesto just looks politely confused.

“No, it hasn’t,” he responds, but of course it has. He frowns, recognizing something in how utterly still Héctor’s become. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m panicking, I think.”

Ernesto sets the basket down and steps over the scattered petals, crouching down beside him.

“— she’s breathing,” he points out, watching the little chest rise and fall.

“We could turn jobs away before, if we wanted. Gone where we wanted. Disappeared if we wanted that, too, lived with the cowboys or the fishermen until we didn’t want to anymore.”

And while it seemed so complicated at the time, the fact was that at the end of the day they had just one job, and it was very simple: to make each other happy. Him and Imelda and Ernesto, and oh, they’d been good at it. They had been so good at it.

“But — we can’t do that anymore. We’ve got to take the jobs that make us money, Ernesto. I’ve got to support her.”

He watches the reality of it sink in, the slow and careful hemming in of freedom that Héctor’s become aware of, the more time he spends with his daughter and wants and wants and wants for her. It’s the same thing that Imelda’s always felt, he knows, from the moment Coco quickened inside of her — no, probably as far back as that first child, actually, when she didn’t want to get married but did it anyway.

“We were going to do that no matter what,” Ernesto says gamely, but he’s looking at Coco now too, speculative.

After a beat, he reaches out, covering Héctor’s hand on her back. Héctor lifts his thumb, hooking it around Ernesto’s smallest finger. They smile at each other.

“She doesn’t look much like you,” Ernesto remarks, and okay, moment’s over.

Héctor makes an indignant noise, and Ernesto’s already got a hand up to placate him as he protests, “She’s a baby! Besides,” he adds, stroking a thumb down the back of Coco’s head, “I don’t want her to look like me. How unfortunate.”

And, quieter, seeking reassurance: “What if I mess up?”

Ernesto sits back, rolling his eyes. “Well, now you’re just fishing for compliments,” and there’s nothing complimentary about the way he says it. Back when he was Figaro’s senior apprentice, that impatient snap would have had the younger students fighting tears. Even now, Héctor has to fight the urge to shrink from it. There’s nowhere to go.

“You’re not going to mess up,” Ernesto continues. “You know damn well you’re the best thing that could happen to her, to any —“

His face freezes, then does something complicated.

“— any child,” he finishes, and pulls his hand out of Héctor’s, standing abruptly. He goes back to the kitchen but doesn’t take the basket with him, and for a long time, Héctor just lays there and stares at it. Every breeze that comes through stirs Coco’s hair against his chin, and sends a few more petals to the floor.

 

*

 

“You know you’re welcome in our bed, right?”

It’s almost comical, how Ernesto’s whole body startles. He whips his head around, transparent with surprise.

Héctor leans in. “Imelda asked me to remind you, because —”

“She did not.”

“She did, actually. Of course, she’ll also be the first to come up with a rule about it. A half-dozen restrictions —“

“And you’ll say ‘they’re not restrictions, mi amor, they’re compromises,’” Ernesto says on automatic, in a passable imitation of Héctor’s voice. He still looks a little like he’s been slapped in the face with a fish.

Héctor smiles patiently. “It just. We haven’t … since before Coco,” though they’ve come close to it, he’s thought, once or twice. “And I don’t know if —“

“We can’t talk about this in a church!” Ernesto’s eyebrows make scandalized shapes at him.

“We’re not in a church!” he retorts, and it’s true — technically, they’re not. They’re on the painter’s platform strung to the outside of the church, winched up high enough for Héctor to start caulking the cracks in the bell tower, per Madre Emmanuela’s request. A pan and brush sit in front of his knees, and Ernesto (and, more importantly, Ernesto’s shoulders) stay by the levers, ready to move them up or down. There’s no one else around — just the sound of the ropes creaking, the bell resonating faintly with every strong wind.

He bends his head over the caulking, under the pretense of checking to make sure its color matches the church exterior. “Now, if God doesn’t want us to solve our problems, then I’ve misunderstood some very key elements of His teachings.”

“Our problems,” he echoes. “Is it a problem?”

Héctor peeks at him. “Is it?”

And Ernesto groans, shifting around so he can stretch his bad leg out, unconsciously rubbing at the scar. “I know how long it’s been. But I — I thought you only wanted me in your bed the one time, just out of —“ he searches for the word. “Appeasement.”

Héctor blinks. Self-awareness is not one of Ernesto’s most prominent traits.

He moves the pan and scoots closer. “And you can do it more than once. We didn’t want to push, but … Coco’s a toddler. She sleeps in her own bed now, so it’s not a matter of — you know. We’re worried we did something wrong.”

Ernesto makes a face.

“No, it’s not that,” he says swiftly. “It’s … I’ve been trying, and waiting, but I’m just not … with women,” he finishes.

Glances at Héctor. Glances away.

“I don’t get it,” Héctor says. Usually, he has no problem translating, but he doesn’t know where to begin with that. What about women? Women are amazing, nothing works without them.

Ernesto blows out a breath, looking like he wishes they weren’t on a wooden platform well off the ground, where the only way to escape the conversation involves slowly lowering them down — and that wouldn’t be as satisfying.

“I don’t have any desire to take women to bed,” comes out of him in a rush, pitched low. “Just men. I mean, I can perform if I need to — if you want me to,” and Héctor, who’s spent years watching Ernesto flirt as easily as he could sing, flashes to the memory of Imelda saying, he likes his games. “But it’s men I prefer most.”

A beat. Then he shrugs.

“Goes to show I’ve always liked the superior things best, I guess.”

Héctor, who’d opened his mouth to say something like of course we can work with that, comes to an abrupt halt. It’s like setting the needle down on a phonograph and hearing something completely wrong come from the record. He’s badly thrown, mouth working soundlessly.

You always start to resemble the people you surround yourself with whether you mean to or not, and Ernesto spends his late nights with the other men in Mariachi Plaza. Héctor hadn’t raised a fuss about it, because yes, it’s difficult to concentrate when Coco’s in the middle of her exhaustive crying spells, and he should have known Ernesto would pick up their habits, but he didn’t think this would be the habit he picked.

“Ernesto,” he says flatly.

Ernesto brushes him off. “You know what I mean.”

I don’t think I do, Héctor thinks. He can feel himself getting hot under the collar.

“So, what — you think men only have to respect women if they want to take them to bed, and that makes you exempt?”

“Don’t put words in my mouth,” Ernesto snaps, and purses his lips. “Truly? You want me truly — you and your wife?”

Yes,” Héctor says, with feeling, because Imelda said, bring him back to us, and it’s taken him this long to realize that his dream is different than Ernesto’s. That all this time, they’ve been talking about one dream and they sometimes meant two different things. Not incompatible things, just different.

Ernesto dreams of the stage, the lights, the way people’s heads turn towards him like they can’t help it — the orphan who draws everyone in and makes them family for the length of a song. He’ll be the first general to ride into Mexico City with a guitar and not a gun.

But Héctor dreams quieter: the way Ernesto laughs for joy when he hears Héctor play something new, the pot bubbling on the stove, the abuelita with Imelda’s ribboned hair sucking at her teeth, the guitar in his lap that they named for their unborn baby. He dreams of being a better father than his own.

He can have both. He can.

“Then,” Ernesto says. “Then we can … compromise. Give me … a little more time, compadre.”

“All right,” Héctor agrees, and puts his hands on Ernesto’s knees and leans across to kisses him, quick and sweet. Up here, there’s no one to see him do it. No one but God, and the soundless counsel of the Santa Cecilia church bell.

 

*

 

Three months in, and Héctor’s still not convinced that Mexico City is a real place.

It’s like the Jalisco musician’s southern house, except it’s an entire city full of things so far removed from Héctor’s experience that at some point he just stops trying to process it. Automobiles compete with the horse-drawn carts in the street. Tortilla women with their stacks of steamer pans teeter precariously past glass-fronted shops with electric lights. At night, the main streets are a runway of neon — even on Sunday.

He and Ernesto are booked for a show every night, sometimes here in the city, sometimes a train ride away — in San Luis Potosí, in Monterrey.

Héctor’s never been more tired in his life.

Conversely, Ernesto has never been happier.

He comes swaggering back one night, so late that the moon has almost set, but Héctor’s out on the steps anyway, playing a softer, more complicated version of “The Blessing Song” and hoping the moon is kind enough to carry it to Santa Cecilia, to his daughter, just as he hopes it’ll be kind enough to carry her voice back to him. If he closes his eyes and pretends, he can almost feel the weight of her beside him on the step. Without meaning to, he segues into the opening notes of “Remember Me”, picking it out the way you’d pick up coins from the ground; hopeful and wistful, both.

Then Ernesto comes up, and he loses his concentration.

There’s no neon on these streets, just the high walls of the surrounding pueblos and the lanterns hanging outside the gates. Ernesto says they’ve stayed at this inn before, but if they did, Héctor’s gotten it confused with the fifty other places that looked just like it.

“This isn’t any different from what we used to do!” Ernesto had said to him impatiently, the fourth time he said, go back and go to bed, amigo, I’ll catch up, and Héctor had said, I don’t remember where we’re staying. “We slept in a different place every night then, too!”

“That was different,” Héctor had said, and then couldn’t elaborate on why.

Before, it had been them and Imelda and Coco and the horses, and it’s hard to lose a group like that, but when it’s just the two of them and a train, Héctor feels like he could fade into one of the postwar murals on the street and God might frown and say, I don’t know where he went. I swear he was right here, just a moment ago.

“What’s that?” Ernesto says now, stopping and lowering himself step by unsteady step so he can sit beside him.

Héctor eyes him warily. Is he drunk?

“What’s what?”

The short-haired girls from their earlier show wanted him to come up west with them. Héctor declined, so Ernesto went. His heroic white outfit has been scuffed, abraded in places, and Héctor knows he isn’t imagining the smell of perfume on him. He’s fragile enough right now that this hurts, somehow. Las pelonas hadn’t been like any girls they’d ever met before, with their bobbed haircuts and strappy heels, but Ernesto’s no womanizer. Héctor stood up and fought his wife on that point, so this almost feels like a betrayal, though of course Ernesto can’t know that.

“What you’re playing. Is it new? We’ve got to play it here, Héctor, they’ll eat anything up. Agustín wants to know what we’re doing for the radio show on Saturday — have you thought about it?”

Héctor cannot tell what the moonlight does — all of it is centered in the sparkle coming off Ernesto’s eyes.

“I don’t want this on the radio,” he tells him, and puts his hand over the bridge of the guitar like he can hold it in. “I don’t want to play it for a crowd.”

Ernesto peers closer at him, and grins.

“A secret?” He tugs self-importantly on his lapels. “Another love song, is it? Very well, how will I wear it?”

“It’s for Coco,” Héctor says softly.

And there’s a moment, a truly terrible moment, when Ernesto’s face goes politely blank.

It’s like peeling back a bandage and finding a wound even worse than you left it; Héctor watches with a growing pit in his stomach as Ernesto mentally unravels their encounters backwards, looking for who could have made this impression. Like somehow when he took Héctor out of Santa Cecilia, it was like he was pulling him from that watering hole all over again, fish-mouthed and gasping for air — whoever he’d been before that moment simply didn’t matter, in Ernesto’s eyes.

Like —

Like Héctor hasn’t thought of himself as married from the moment Ernesto put a hand under his face, like he hasn’t wanted to belong to Imelda from the first moment he heard her sing “Gloria” in the Consequela courtyard. Like he hasn’t spent the last four years of his life wanting to try because of them.

Then it clears, a visible little shake of oh, of course, and Héctor would almost think it hadn’t been there at all, if not for the fact he still feels it, tidily inserted into his ribs and dripping blood: Ernesto forgot about his daughter. Ernesto forgot.

“Oh, that’s sweet of you,” he says. “There’s a market for lullabies, somewhere.”

“Her birthday is soon,” Héctor reminds him. “We should think about making our way back.”

Ernesto blinks at him, then booms out a laugh.

“Back?” he echoes, and pushes himself upright, shaking his head incredulously. “When we’re so close to success? Mi amigo, mi amor, you’ve done something funny to your head.”

He swans past him into their room. Héctor follows.

“My head is just fine,” he says, stopping to lock his guitar back into its case. “She’s a child. Children believe birthdays are for miracles. I don’t want her to be left waiting.”

“The radio, Héctor,” Ernesto insists. “We cannot miss this opportunity. No, I refuse to miss this opportunity because you want to have an obligation — !”

“But I do!” Héctor cries.

They both jar to a halt, badly startled. Sweet, cajoling, peacemaking Héctor doesn’t make a habit of raising his voice.

He lowers it again. “I do have an obligation, Ernesto.”

“And what do you think it is?” Ernesto fires back, the flush in his face turning ruddy. “You go home now, we have to start over. Then what? Do you want to do that forever?”

“No, I — “

“She’s a girl. She’s not going to earn you anything. She’s only going to cost you more money as she gets older, and that’s supposing you don’t whelp more!”

Héctor turns away, hissing, but it’s too late: Ernesto has already decided to let go and be vicious, because he steps in, cornering Héctor in the narrow space between their beds. Something about his eyes, the quick tossed-coin flashes of expression, makes Héctor realize he’s scripted this outburst before. He’s rehearsed it.

“Are you going to go home?” he presses. “Play for weddings, for whatever quinceañera has a deep pocket? How will you support them like that?”

“I’ll … manage,” Héctor says weakly.

Playing for weddings isn’t bad. And he could teach, too — use the music room in the church, under the watchful eye of its patron saint.

Ernesto ignores him.

“But it we work at it now, make it big while we can, you don’t have to worry about it! You’ll have enough — more than enough.” He grabs Héctor’s hands, peering up at him earnestly. “You can spoil her! Think, Héctor, what’s your real responsibility?”

“We could … we could split up,” Héctor offers, slow and heartsick. “You could continue on, do the radio show, I’ll join up with you in the —“

Ernesto drops his hands, disgusted. “No, no,” he says. “That’s not the plan. We do it together, amigo, or not at all. And I’ve done enough of the not at all.”

He flings himself onto the edge of the bed, bending down to tug his shoes off, and Héctor knows they’re both thinking about last year, when they saddled up and tried to do a tour without Imelda, and found that nothing would go right. They faced lukewarm reaction after lukewarm reaction, in her absence.

If you didn’t look so unhappy and squirrelly, Ernesto had snapped at him after one of these shows, removing his cravat in short, frustrated tugs.

And Héctor muttered back, if you had any real talent, and Ernesto did them both the favor of pretending he didn’t hear. It was the ugliest they’d been with each other, until now.

He sways.

Don’t do it, he tells himself. He’s being vicious to hurt you, don’t sink to his level. Don’t.

He opens his mouth.

As if from a great distance, he hears himself say, “You do not appreciate what I do for you.”

Ernesto flares red.

“You little rat,” he snarls, surging forward. Héctor flinches back.

This is the temper he’s always trying to forestall, the one that makes him feel like he’s failed his job as Ernesto’s best friend (talk sense into him, niño.) Before terror can do more than kick at his chest, the expression clears. Ernesto tugs at his charro jacket, smooths his hair back, and digs his finger into Héctor’s chest.

“It’s that woman. She’s filling your head with this.”

“Oh, don’t be a donkey,” Héctor says in disgust.

“No, really, I’m done with it. I am done asking for permission.”

You’ve never asked for permission! Héctor thinks, but then flashes to it. Her permission. He’s done asking for her permission.

He’s on the other side of the room before he stops again. He clenches his fists. Next he speaks, he addresses the scuff marks in the floorboards, his own socks — darned with red, to separate them in the laundry from Ernesto’s blue, Imelda’s yellow.

“You two think I don’t know,” he says lowly.

Ernesto’s voice cracks back, wound tight. “Know what.”

“You and Imelda,” and even though he keeps his back turned to him, he can practically hear the way Ernesto stiffens. “You made some sort of … of bet —“

“No,” is the instant objection. “No, it wasn’t a bet. It was a vow, we went before —” but Héctor talks over him.

“You think I don’t see you — that the both of you are just waiting for me to choose one or the other, and what’s worse, I think half the time you’re convinced you’ve already lost me to the other and treat me accordingly!” He makes no attempt to control his voice. He can hear it leaking, going everywhere. “And I thought if I worked harder, if I just tried, you would realize that you don’t need to be in competition. That I have time, I have the love, the energy to spare and I know what I’m doing.”

His breath shudders. “I just thought I had to give you more time.”

“Héctor …” Ernesto tries.

“You know something?” He runs his palm over the curve of the guitar case. Looking at it, beaten and battered by the years, you’d never be able to guess the phenomenal instrument inside, the ones the Consequela twins made. “Neither of you won. Neither of you will win. Coco wins. She will win every time.”

And it’s the last word — it’s a good last word — and he wants to leave on that note, but he doesn’t have his boots on and he doesn’t have anywhere to go, regardless. So he stands there, trembling, waiting, until:

A hand on his back, sliding under the high cut of his jacket so the palm flattens over his spine.

The tension in Héctor snaps like a thread cut, and he sags with a noise of relief, lets Ernesto turn him, and —

He rears back.

“Don’t,” he blurts out. “Don’t try to kiss me. What gives you even the remotest idea that I want to be kissed right now?”

“But — you always want to be kissed,” Ernesto looks blank.

Héctor lets out a strangled noise, then hauls himself backwards, trying to pull free, but Ernesto resists, holding on and saying, “hey, hey now,” coaxingly, low and with surety, and Héctor —

Sees it, with sudden clarity: the fork in the road, and knows at once that this is the moment he makes a choice.

The geography of all his decisions laid out before him, all those tectonic ages pressed into readable layers, and this is where the split will be, where Sierra Norte becomes Sierra Sur, and whatever grows in the valley will be the result of this choice, this one — now.

It is, as all choices are, between resistance and non-resistance.

Héctor could pull his arm in and fight.

He could change Ernesto’s mind — and he could. If there’s anyone in the world who could change Ernesto’s mind, it would be Héctor.

But it would take time, strategy, force of will. Ernesto is already set against it, and every day he spends on this is another day Coco watches the moon and waits for him.

Or he could take the easiest way out of this argument. He could let Ernesto have what he wants now, and save his energy for the flight home. Try to repair what he could later. There might even be a day when he could joke about it — don’t ever say I didn’t love you equally. I even left you both equally! — and actually, no, he’d be dead, because they’d kill him. Ernesto and Imelda could be remarkably single-minded with each other about him, sometimes.

But those.

Those are his choices.

And the way all choices are, it isn’t much of a choice at all.

He lifts his eyes to the ceiling. He takes a deep breath, then turns in Ernesto’s arms.

Ernesto makes a gratified sound against his mouth. Héctor curls his hand in the short hairs along his skull, thumb nudged against the shell of his ear and doesn’t pull back, just kisses him again, insistently, tongue pressing in.

Hands land on his hips, steering him backward — one step, then another, their socked feet overlapping, their knees knocking.

His body knows this. It’s already relaxing into the familiarity of it, how this will go.

“Héctor,” Ernesto murmurs, against his bottom lip. He’s pulling Héctor’s shirt out, hands roaming underneath and stroking across his stomach, his ribs. “How long have we known each other?”

In fact, he knows exactly how this will go, because Ernesto hasn’t changed his technique in five years. He found what worked once and hasn’t deviated from it since, and Héctor didn’t even know he was angry about that, too. He’s got just the one trick — in his music and in his lovemaking and in everything else — and if he intends to survive, he’s going to need more innovation. Héctor can’t teach him that.

“Héctor.” Sharper now.

“Yeah, I know,” Héctor says, instead of answering.

Ernesto hooks his ankle behind his and tips him backwards.

He hits the mattress with a protesting screech of the springs, flinching at the noise. Scrambling upright, he grabs the front of Ernesto’s shirt, pulling his mouth down to his so he doesn’t have to look him in the face — he’s not doing a good job at hiding what’s on his, he knows.

In a moment, they’re touching everywhere; stomachs and thighs, chins and arms and hands and teeth, and Héctor remembers being sixteen, seventeen, when he had all that new skin and no idea what to do with it, when he was so sure that something as simple as Ernesto’s body flush against his — to touch, him, allowed to, as much as he wanted! — was going to be the death of him.

“See?” Ernesto’s saying, greedily, mouth stung-swollen and kissing its way along Héctor’s jaw. “It’s not so bad, not if it’s the two of us — Héctor — “

And: “You said it yourself, you need to make money. Staying with me is putting her first.”

And, worse than all of that: “Héctor,” he says again, and, “song of my heart.”

Don’t call me that, Héctor thinks desperately. Please don’t.

His chest feels peculiar, stretched too tight, like his skin’s turned into something awful, leathery and parched, dried to the point of cracking, and if he touches it, he’ll come away smeared with decay. There’s something in there, buried deep and rotting, coming up at last: the remnants of that child self, who’d loved Ernesto so much he thought he was going to die from it, if you could do that, if you thought you could live for someone so much that it would kill you.

You can’t have something like that and survive it.

Héctor slips his hands over Ernesto’s ribs, fans his fingers over his heartbeat and holds it — and the whole while, his chest aches.

It leaks. It goes dry.

Héctor’s eyes fly open, but it does it again; the unpleasant bump of knocking up against the edge of something. He reaches, but there’s nothing beyond it, nothing left.

Once, Héctor’s love had felt bottomless, overflowing, and here he is, fingernails scraping up its very last dregs.

All this time, it was here.

Bad water, porfirista-cursed.

 

*

 

Ernesto tries, but it’s too late.

Two nights later, in a hotel room scarcely any different from the last, Héctor picks up his suitcase. He picks up his guitar case. They make a physical barrier, and Ernesto cannot lay a hand on him.

He says, this was your dream.

He says, you’ll manage.

But the thing about dreams, though, is that while yours can be about any place, any person, any intangible vision of mountains or giddy children or swirling skirts or vendors with your favorite antojitos, all dreams are the same if you peel them down far enough. Everyone’s — his and Héctor’s, Imelda’s and Coco’s.

Every dream, at its heart, is the same plea:

Don’t leave me here alone.

The good guy in the story never gets to be the good guy without painful sacrifice. This part had already been written.

So Ernesto …

Ernesto de la Cruz does what any man would do when his dream is threatened.

He walks his best friend to the train station.

 

*

 

You poison the rats, Chicharrón had told them, years ago, showing them that buckshot smile of his from underneath the wide brim of his hat. Where there are rats, there are snakes. Where there are snakes, there are coyotes, and coyotes are no good for cattle. So you kill the rats. And only then do you prosper.

 

*

 

To my daughter Imelda, the letter begins.

We have received your request and you must understand why we have to deny it.

There’s no place for you here. Your uncle has a household to run, good boys to bring up, and you are their run-away cousin with no husband, no money, nothing to her name but shame. You see how that would set a bad example.

Any future contact from you will be burnt. You will be turned away if you arrive at our gate. I’m sorry that it must be so, but your uncle has spoken. You are the consequence of your actions.

But you are also my only daughter, so I give you all I have saved. May God in His wisdom open a path for you.

Family comes first, Imelda. I know you understand.

I remain, your loving mother.

And that’s it.

She turns the parchment over, but of course there’s nothing there.

Her hands tremble. Uncontrollably. Blinded, she puts it down.

Outside, she hears birds. She hears the cat, lecturing them.

The howl starts somewhere in her chest, where it had been coiled up so deep you could almost trick yourself into thinking it just was a small thing, and when it comes up it scours layers out of her, leaving the insides of her ribs and her throat scorched. The sound she makes is terrifying.

The bedside table crashes to the ground, splintering, and next goes the purse, which hits the wall with a thunk and spills coins everywhere.

For one blinding, obliterating moment, Imelda hates it all.

All of it. Everything.

Hates her mother for having to squash herself under her brother-in-law’s thumb her whole life, for accepting it, for being in no position to safely say no to him.

Hates her uncle — blindingly, utterly. Oh, how he must have laughed to see her begging to come home.

Family comes first! What of her family? What has her daughter ever done to deserve —

And Héctor!

Oh, she hates Héctor so much she could spit. She hates Ernesto, that smug prick.

And —

For a single searing second, like putting her hand to the side of a boiling pot, she hates Coco.

But it’s only a second, and then she snatches herself back, gasping and burnt by it, already blistering and loathing.

Most of all, she hates herself, and when she eats herself down to that core, when she comes back to herself, she finds herself on her knees, forehead pressed to the fine grit she hasn’t yet swept from the floor, her arms outstretched.

“We were supposed to do this together,” she whispers hollowly.

To her family, the big and rambling show choir that it is. To Ernesto, to Héctor.

Mostly, to Héctor.

Then she pushes herself up onto her hands and knees and crawls over to start picking up the money.

She finds a jar, and she seals it.

She will use it, she decides, when and only when there is not a single option left.

 

*

 

She sells the horses.

First, though, she sells the phonograph, and tries to sell the trumpet too, but winds up giving it to a choir girl with big wide eyes who’s never had a single nice thing in her life. Then Héctor’s horse, then Ernesto’s, and finally even her own, and is left with a grief she salts and cures like leather.

On Sundays, when the responsorial starts, she reaches over to cover Coco’s hand with hers in warning, and Coco’s warbling child voice flips abruptly into silence like a trap snapping shut. Soon she doesn’t need to anymore: comfortable with the knowledge that it has nothing to do with her, Coco becomes deaf to the singing in Mass.

Afterwards, Imelda lets Madre Emmanuela take her with the others, and makes her meals stretch another day that way.

“You’ve stopped singing,” one of the altar servers remarks to her as she finds her pew one Sunday. “You honor God with your voice, señora, why won’t you celebrate Him with us?”

And that’s between her and God, not her and a fourteen-year-old boy, so she says, “I’ll find another way.”

Every monetary leak, she finds it and shoves a rag into it.

She rolls up her sleeves, darns and hems and caulks and hammers. She cuts clothes for Coco out of her own, cursing and hating herself when her clumsy tailoring costs her another usable piece of fabric. She’s never been more aware of what she’s lived her whole life relying on other people for — and now it’s as if she’s nothing but stumps, bleeding money. She cannot afford it.

More often than she’d like, she thinks of the old widow. The one who was trying to get home.

What had she said?

Oh, it doesn’t matter. Imelda hadn’t been listening, so convinced was she then that she’d never know those circumstances.

There’s no singing, no dancing in her house, but around Christmas she joins the groups singing for posada so she can afford wise man’s gifts for Coco on the Epiphany.

It’s not easy. The men look at her in bemusement the more she tries to ingratiate herself, like they’re not sure where she came from, and the women don’t do a good job at hiding how they talk about her, mimicking her mountain accent to each other and then bursting into gales of laughter, and that’s before anyone brings up the husband who hasn’t been heard from in months. With the occasional exception of the Espositos, Imelda has no friends here — never really tried. Héctor and Ernesto had been enough, she didn’t want anybody else peeking at their arrangements. She hadn’t thought she would need anybody beyond … beyond what she already had, and she pays for that hostility, every day.

The questions start curiously, then with concern, and then with deliberation:

Where is your husband, señora?

And Imelda is twelve, eighteen, twenty-two, saying, I don’t know, I don’t know, no I didn’t know about my monthlies, no I didn’t know about babies, no I didn’t know he was going to leave me.

And she hates Héctor for making her this person, again.

 

*

 

It crosses her mind that she could leave.

Start over, somewhere else.

San Juan Albán isn’t an option, but it wasn’t her only option. There are the ranchers, too. She could fold away her skirts and don suspenders and live the rest of her life as a man, with horses and cattle and campfire coffee, and company to sing with. She was a farrier before she was anything else. Chicharrón would vouch for her, and Gabriel is Coco’s godfather, he’d stand by them, too.

She’d been happy there, she could succeed there, but …

But ranching is no life for a child.

The exposure, the poor food, no schooling, the wildlife, even the cattle themselves — all of it was dangerous enough for grown men, much less a child not quite five years. There’s a reason cowboys don’t bring their families with them on their jobs. Coco wouldn’t survive it.

While, she might, but she wouldn’t thrive.

And how, Imelda thinks viciously, and how exactly is running away to be a cowboy any better than running away to be a musician?

When she is older. Maybe. When Coco is older, if we’re still in these straits, I will take her. We’ll see, and we’ll decide.

But fortunately, it doesn’t come to that.

 

*

 

(Once, just the once, she extends this fantasy to her husband.

It’s one of her rarest moments, later in life when she is feeling fondest with the world, willing to be generous even to the past. If she fancied herself able to wear pants and suspenders with no consequences, then just this once she allows Héctor the same freedom.

The most indulgent place she ever imagines him is across the border somewhere, Guatemala or Panama — she’s never been to these places, but she heard they’re strange and unprincipled and flagrantly liberal, not like Mexico — with his face shaved, his hair grown out to frame those angular features, making them elegant instead of beaky. She pictures him surrounded by children, students probably, with flutes and lyres and sheet music in accordion folders, tugging on his skirts to get his attention. He would have had a woman’s name for so long by now he wouldn’t even look up if someone shouted for a Héctor.

Do you think we could have switched places, in some other world? she thinks. Do you think we would have been happier?

But it’s just a fantasy, and she’s forgotten it by morning.)

 

*

 

Imelda Rivera sinks to her lowest point in the summer of 1923.

Coco, now five, is starting recognize the disparity between how she’s treated and how all the other children are treated. But there’s no visible cause — she’s aware she’s being punished but they aren’t, and she has no way to articulate this unfairness in any other way besides shouting and crying. Imelda, who sees this and a lot more besides, tries to soothe her, letting Coco bury her teary face in her lap and stroking her head to comfort her, the soft dark hair and the ribbons she salvaged from other outfits, and then she says, “okay, that’s enough,” because there comes a time when everybody must stop crying.

For money, she does the washing for Señora Isadora, the walnut-faced matron of Casa Garciarona who takes great pleasure in being as stingy as her son is generous. So Imelda treats leather and scrubs sheets until the lye makes her hands crack, and accepts the pittance the matron doles out into her palm with her head down. She’d be mad about it, how Señora Isadora pinches her oft-lauded Christian compassion as much as she pinches her pennies, but her daughter’s waiting for her at home; sweet-smelling, clean, wanting her mother to bring her something to eat.

Inside, something still howls. It hasn’t stopped.

It’s already eaten up every memory of Héctor, until her anger is so slow-cooked it feels like tar, burnt to her ribs. Every thought has its taste. How could you do this to me, and, you probably aren’t even thinking of me at all.

Have I become nothing but a footprint to you — some twinge you might feel at lying to God, but only when someone reminds you — whereas I am defined, every moment of every day, by your abandonment.

How is that fair?

It’s a fine day, the sun warm on her arms and the breeze a relief across the back of her neck, and she scrubs sheets on the washboard. The hot water stings at the broken skin on her hands, a needling pain that’s just one more thing she resents as she’s forced to stop to suck on her cuts for relief. And then —

— she hears Ernesto’s voice.

Her head comes up. Water drips down her wrists.

She would know it anywhere, that voice, the command in it. It’s her cue to kick up her skirts, to raise her own voice in response, to spin across the stage into his outstretched hand — or across the cantina floor, the open grass or the hard-packed dirt under a thrown-open sky, wherever they were.

Without any conscious idea of how she got there, she finds herself in the shady interior of the kitchen, heading deeper into the compound. The cook stops rounding masa to fry for sopes to give her a curious look, but it’s like being one beat ahead of the music: her body’s moving, doing something, but the reason for it hasn’t made itself known yet.

In the central courtyard, where the tilework sinks towards the drain in the center, she finds the younger brother of the now-married Garciarona girl lounging at the heart of his group of friends. He’s the first place your eyes go, distinctive because of the beadwork and tassels on his chaparreras — and Imelda would know, she has to clean them and restitch them. He’s got a pocketbook open on his lap, scribbling in numbers as the boys around him shout them out, discussing the specifics of the racetrack they want to build. She can still hear Ernesto’s voice — is he going to come swaggering out?

Finally, she spots the radio behind the boy’s body, protected from the elements by a broad mantle.

Of course, she thinks. Señor Garciarona always has to have the newest thing.

The radio is big, bulky, stamped on the side with a large logo for La Casa de Radio, but Ernesto’s voice comes out of it as clearly as if he was at home. As if all she had to do was close her eyes and there he’d be, tapping his foot in time as Héctor pulled Imelda into his arms and swung her around the room, Ernesto’s voice the only accompaniment they needed.

But he’s not.

Brusquely, she brushes herself off, trying to shake the phantom feeling of hands under her arms.

“What is that?” she demands.

The boys all start, and the Garciarona brother blinks at her once, twice, three times before placing her.

“Señora?” he says questioningly, tucking away his stub of a pencil, then says, “ah, it’s a radio. Don’t be afraid, there’s nobody inside, it’s actually a machine that — “

“I know that,” Imelda cuts across him witheringly. It’s obvious, but she has to hear it said. “Who is that, that man singing?”

“Oh! That’s Ernesto de la Cruz.”

Imelda closes her eyes. A very strange thing is happening to her body; a sensation like dizziness, but worse.

He’s still talking, but she interrupts him. “What of his band?”

One of the others titters, and he starts to frown.

“Hey, now, you can’t talk to me like — “

Imelda snaps.

“I do your washing, chavo, you have no secrets from me and I am more than willing to tell these boys about them,” and the boys in question, who’d been watching this exchange with beady interest, sit up with whoops of delight, almost drowning out the rest of Imelda’s “now answer my question.”

“I don’t know anything about a band,” he says belligerently.

“He always plays with someone.”

Say his name, say his name.

“I’m telling you, I don’t know! He’s just one man and a guitar!”

She’s imagined this conversation more times than she can count, preparing a whole repertoire of clever responses should someone ever tell her they saw Ernesto and Héctor playing, why have they left you behind, señora — but this isn’t following the script in her head.

Is he … are they not together, then? She glances again at the radio, but the song’s ended, drowned out by a tinny rush of applause — the radio doesn’t make it sound anything like how it does in reality, and it’s setting her teeth on edge. Cinema isn’t so strange anymore, but the radio is much newer and for a long time had been completely inaccessible outside of the city. The first broadcast she ever heard had been a speech from President Obregón; the applause had sounded like this, too, too much like water rushing downhill.

The song hadn’t been one of theirs, not from their act, so she wouldn’t recognize Héctor’s playing by his technique alone. It could have been him. It could have just as easily been Ernesto.

The Garciarona boy has his hands on his hips now, face wadding up into an unpleasant sneer.

“If you’re so interested, why don’t you go see him? He’s coming to Oaxaca City two months from now. All the newspapers will be there, and the radio people, to record him playing for Santa Cecilia’s feast day — that’s us,” he adds, unnecessarily. “He’s from here, you know. He grew up here.”

Imelda almost laughs.

Yes, I know, she has the near-hysterical urge to say. He’s been in our bed, I’ve put my legs around him and felt him groan, I know where he’s from.

And then — an idea coalesces.

She stops, and tries not to look directly at it, but it’s there, forming at the edges of her thoughts. Could she …

No. She couldn’t.

But … she has a responsibility. And that means her options are limited, so …

An impatient noise from the Garciarona boy drags her back to the situation at hand, where she realizes she’s still standing above the courtyard with her red hands dripping suds on the tilework. She looks at him in his chaparreras, and thinks, not for the first or the third or even the hundredth time, what a waste of good cowhide that is. She feels all of her Consequela uncles at her back, their phantom jeering.

“You look ridiculous in those,” she fires at him, and in her words she can hear that caked-on bitter grime that’s been her rice and beans for one season, then another. It’s the only thing she can taste. “You’ve never been on a horse in your life, you’re scared of anything larger than a jackrabbit. You’re not fooling us.”

With that, she turns and stalks out of the courtyard. She dries her hands on her skirts. Her idea follows her, persistent as a shadow.

This time, she lets herself crack it open, look at its juices, its innards.

Oaxaca City isn’t far. It was one of the places she’d considered relocating them to. Someplace not so big that she’d be worried for Coco’s safety, but big enough that it wouldn’t be stifling. Especially with the Guelaguetza every year; they’d continually meet new musicians, exchange ideas and opportunities. She almost had it planned to the day they’d move, but it turned out her men had other ideas.

She could go now. She could find Ernesto. She could accost him, claim abandonment, claim she’d been wronged.

In front of all those witnesses, she could claim Coco was his.

In front of all those witnesses, who would see the look on his face when he realized it could be true.

 

*

 

Five summers ago, the rains came early, torrential and terrible, and Ernesto’s horse lost its footing crossing the mountains. Left stranded with the Zapotecs for months while his bones healed and they repaired the roads, Ernesto rolled bandages, untangled festival bunting, and slowly turned destructive. He wasn’t made for small places, where appreciation could only come in modest doses.

So Héctor and Imelda planned it between themselves. A flower cart came from the Costa Chica. They sang, they danced. They licked salt off the backs of their hands. They put a slice of lime between Ernesto’s teeth. Then they took him to bed.

They made it last.

Almost too long, in fact, and that could have been due to a dozen things: that the gatehouse, by that point, wasn’t getting any less crowded, and voices kept coming dangerously close to their door, forcing them to stifle each other, hands over mouths and trembling with embarrassment, with laughter. It could have been because of the drink, and it could have been because Ernesto, who faked confidence with the best (you could almost believe he got asked into other peoples’ marriage beds all the time,) wanted very much to make it good for them, and worried that he couldn’t.

“Are you sure?” he’d asked her, quiet, picking up a lock of her hair and absently tucking it back behind her ear. “You want … ?”

She leaned into the touch. “Hm?”

They had been, the both of them, distracted.

On the bed, Héctor struggled to catch his breath, his arm tossed across his eyes and his chest heaving. His ears, his cheeks, his stomach were all stained red, and Imelda knew for a fact she and Ernesto were watching him with near-identical expressions of smug satisfaction. He’d tried, she would grant him that, but he was in a bed with the two people who knew him best and wanted him to know it.

Slowly, she looked up at Ernesto, and her chest tightened with something dangerously close to affection.

Before she could stop herself, she brushed her fingers through his hair, too, mussing that forelock he was so fond of.

Then she tightened her grip, using it to pull him so she could whisper, too low for Héctor to hear, “— made a vow, Ernesto.”

She felt it against her chest; his answering rumble. “God as my witness. You don’t play fair, Imelda.”

“And who do you think I learned it from?” she demanded archly, but he already had a hand under her knee, pulling her off-balance and bearing her down onto the blankets. She scooped her hair out from under her before it caught painfully and opened her mouth, but he kissed her before she could tease him further. He moved over her, lips dragging against her teeth, her tongue, startling her with how very Héctor-ish it felt in its eagerness. It shouldn’t — she shouldn’t be surprised, that he kissed like Héctor. She probably does too. He taught them everything they know.

He taught them how to let themselves be loved.

You can’t undo a thing like that.

When he pulled away, he said, “Héctor, stop being lazy. Get up here and give me a hand.”

A groan came from under the arm. “Murder,” Héctor said hoarsely. “Help, please, I’d like to report a murder.”

“If you think being dead’s going to get you out of doing the work, amigo,” Ernesto told him unsympathetically, “I’ve got news for you.”

Imelda shifted and complained, “Someone do something before I die of old age.”

Either way, towards the end she felt the frustration in Ernesto’s grip around her thigh, the impending failure to perform. He hadn’t wanted her on top, so she was out of her depth on what to do about it. (She thought, for the span of a single heartbeat, about making a joke: will it help if I roll over? But knew at once that would only make it worse.)

She looked at her husband in mute appeal, but Héctor was already moving.

Shifting his hold on her, he bent at the waist and caught Ernesto’s face with his free hand, drawing their heads up flush against each other.

“My friend, mi amor,” he murmured, low, brushing back a lock of his hair so he could put his mouth to Ernesto’s temple, his ear, keeping time with the movement of Ernesto’s body hitching inside Imelda’s. His tone was at once familiar and completely foreign, the kind she usually heard him use when he had a new song and truly loved it. She went warm and pliable to her core.

“Héctor …” she started, surprised.

He smiled at her, and to Ernesto he said, inexorably calm, “Can I ask you a question?”

“Héctor.”

Same name, different tone entirely.

“How is it we wound up here, do you think? Of all the places we could be.”

“We — worked for it.”

“We did. Is this where you will finish tonight?” His voice dropped, lips catching the edge of Ernesto’s jaw. “Will you finish inside my wife, Ernesto? Your best friend’s wife?”

And Imelda cursed at him, arched her back and felt Ernesto slide deep, and he was groaning and crushing her up against —

So. Yes.

He would remember that.

He would know it was possible.

 

*

 

She could go to Oaxaca City.

She could stamp her feet and curse and make the kind of scene those newspapers would love, the kind that men fantasize about until they find themselves on the receiving end of one — the kind women make when they have no other options left and are willing to sacrifice this, even dignity.

She knows her dates, and so would the nuns of Santa Cecilia, but she’s trusting that Ernesto didn’t pay attention to such tawdry things like her monthlies, or when she quickened, or any of it. The possibility, in rough conjunction with a child Coco’s age, and he could be pressured. If Héctor is truly no longer in the picture for either of them, she could make Ernesto de la Cruz support her instead.

She walks back to the tub and washboard, sits down, but her hands wander without direction. Her mind is miles away. It’s packing a bag, it’s arranging for transportation to the city since she has no horses anymore, it’s planning what it’s going to say to Coco. It’s laying out contingencies for her.

She’s under no illusions: Ernesto won’t want to do it.

And he’s going to put up a fight.

Every step of the way, he’ll fight her, and while the newspapers might gleefully snap up a scandal if she throws a big enough tantrum, it doesn’t change the fact that Ernesto de la Cruz is what old women and young boys want to be. He started out dirt-poor like them, an appealing kind of war orphan, and he will succeed as a mariachi because Mexico wants him to succeed. Anything Imelda says or does to threaten that will be met with open hostility from those who love him.

He’s always had people willing to defend him.

Héctor was usually at the top of that list.

And Héctor …

No. He, too, would need to be sacrificed.

For her story to be believable, his inadequacies as a husband would have to be aired, or even downright fabricated. She knows how to do it; this time, it’d be her starting the joke that would ruin him. Yes, she’s married, but no, she’s quite sure she knows who Coco’s father is — Héctor’s tastes, she would tell everyone with deliberate emphasis, never ran towards women.

And it wouldn’t be the truth — but Ernesto would know it wouldn’t be a lie, either.

She tries to predict how the conversation would go as she hangs the linens, so preoccupied it takes her three tries before she finds the right pocket with the clothespins in it.

What about you, Señora Rivera? she imagines him saying.

It’s kneejerk, how quickly her brain can conjure the memory of his smug expression. He’ll still have the mustache, of course. The world could end before Ernesto gave up that mustache.

How am I to be certain, señora?

And he’d call her that, he would. Not Consequela. Not even “doña,” the way Coco’s playmates do sometimes. Señora Rivera. To mock her for how badly she’d once wanted to belong to Héctor.

If you openly admit to letting me between your legs, then who else has been there, do you think? A whole parade? You say that’s my daughter, but would you have said the same thing to the next charming man who sang you a tune?

It’s the kind of thing Jorge Guavarrez would have said, and she has no trouble imagining the words in Ernesto’s mouth. She bares her teeth and hisses out, “Ach, bastard,” and the mangy white cat sitting on top of the wall turns its head to stare at her in bemusement.

“Mind your own business,” she snaps at it, and turns her back.

Do you think he wouldn’t want it? she demands of that mental Ernesto — just him this time, no newspapers.

Do you think I didn’t see him thinking about it, wondering if he could ask?

Because if there’s one thing she could trust to be true, it’s that Ernesto de la Cruz always assumed that everything Héctor did, he did for him: that Héctor was the only person more dedicated to looking out for Ernesto than Ernesto was looking out for himself. And he would want it — he would want to ask Imelda if she would be willing to have Ernesto’s child, whom Héctor would raise as his own, and gladly. Not just Ernesto’s child with anyone, but with Imelda, his wife, specifically.

Her mental Ernesto has nothing to say to that.

Thought so, Imelda thinks, nodding, and sticks another clothespin in her mouth.

She finishes the washing, she puts everything away neat as a drum, she accepts her spittle-and-sticks of a payment from Señora Isadora, and the whole while, her mind spins, spins, spins. How much is she willing to sacrifice to get that support?

No, wait. How much is she willing to pay to secure Coco’s future?

And Coco!

Oh, Coco.

All of it — she’d be doing all of it for Coco, there’s no reason she would even consider doing it otherwise, but would Coco understand that? Like everything else in Imelda’s life that ever mattered, there’s no good words for this, just — bastard, by-blow, adulterer. Coco’s every failure, accredited to being Ernesto’s unloved, illegitimate child. Her every success would be his, too, in spite of it. She wouldn’t be allowed to have any good memories of Héctor, and someday Imelda would have to decide whether or not to let her in on the lie.

How could Coco go through that, and not grow up to resent her?

Just as … just as Imelda grew up to resent her own mother, for similar weaknesses.

No.

Imelda may be willing to give up everything she owns, and tolerate a lot more besides, but she won’t sacrifice Coco’s happiness, or her love.

She is not willing to lay that at the altar of Ernesto de la Cruz. She is not her husband.

 

*

 

The sun slopes sideways across the rooftops as she leaves Casa Garciarona, a late afternoon light that stains everything the same color of wet fruit.

There’s a play street between the hacienda wall and the neighbor’s; no carts or bicycles are allowed to come down this way, making it safer than the main road for children to play. She hears Coco’s voice before she sees her.

“ — going to do?”

“It’s just a shoe.” That’s the cook’s son. He’s close enough in age to Coco that they get thrown together a lot, especially when the Garciarona brats all feel like excluding them. He’s got his thumbs through his belt loops, mimicking the older Garciarona boy’s vaquero stance. “Why can’t you buy new ones?”

“Mamá’s going to be so mad!” Coco’s voice sails up, wavering with tears.

Imelda quickens her pace, striding towards them.

“What’s going on here?” she barks.

The cook’s son jumps, scuttling out of the way to reveal Coco, one ribboned braid unraveling down her front, crouched on the cobblestones with her shoe in her hand. Her stocking shows its threadbare patch under the ball of her foot.

Coco looks up at her, wide-eyed, and immediately begins to cry harder. She holds out the shoe.

Imelda gets down on her knees and takes it from her, but it’s obvious what the problem is: the sole’s come away from the toe completely, leaving it to flap against the bottom of Coco’s foot like the tongue of an overeager dog. Imelda holds it up to the light, studying the places the threads have broken loose.

“I’m sorry!” bursts out Coco, tremulously. “I didn’t — I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry it’s broken — are you mad?”

Imelda flinches. Children have an innate sense for what makes their parents angry, and Imelda hates everything that breaks. They don’t have the money to replace it or get someone to fix it, and it becomes just one more shabby thing they’ve got to wear, and somewhere along in there Coco convinced herself that Imelda’s anger would be her fault.

She reaches out, cupping the back of Coco’s head.

“I’m not mad,” she assures her, soft enough that Coco smiles with relief.

She looks again at the shoe, running her thumbs over the worn leather. Having spent so long brushing, cleaning, and repairing the Garciarona chaparreras, she has a new familiarity with leather, and recognition strikes itself like a match. The part of her brain that had been churning over imaginary conversations with Ernesto suddenly creaks, turns over, and starts going in the other direction.

Wonderingly, she says, “I know how to fix this.”

Coco brightens. “Really?”

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

It’s a feeling like tar residue coming off, like scrubbing away a layer of Spanish dirt to find turquoise underneath, and gold. She puts the shoe down in front of her daughter and digs in her apron pocket for her tools. She was a farrier once, and then she was a traveling singer roughing it with musicians and cowboys alike, and then she was a mother with a dilapidated house to resurrect.

She knows how to fix this. This won’t cost them a peso.

And if she knows how to do this, what doesn’t she know how to do?

What’s the value of the things she already knows? People like her mother, her uncle, Señora Isadora — they’d all want her to believe it isn’t worth anything at all, the things Imelda knows, because they don’t want her to know her value. They only want her to do what they want her to do.

The words from her mother’s letter drift up to her from memory.

You are the consequence of your actions.

This is an action.

Oaxaca City would be an action.

She transfers her tools to one hand so she can dry Coco’s tears with the other. She pulls her chin up and kisses her forehead.

“I am not a consequence,” she tells her firmly. “And neither are you.”

 

*

 

She does not go to Oaxaca City.

 

*

 

Her first order of business is the registrar’s office, where she sits on the worn velvet seat in the lobby until the single applicant ahead of her is taken care of, and then she goes in to have the primer apellido struck from her name.

She walks in there as Imelda Consequela Flores and walks out as Imelda Rivera, officially, trying to shake it into place along her neck, her shoulders, like it’s a new haircut; she knows, now, the weight she had been carrying only by its sudden absence.

It aches, but only at first. She’ll be like one of the Santa Cecilia orphans, only having one name with which she has to do everything.

Herself and Coco, the only Riveras left — they will decide what it means to be one.

Once she’s at home again, she stands in front of her mantle for a long moment, listening for any sounds from Coco’s room and hearing nothing but the ticking of the grandfather clock. She takes a deep breath.

Then she breaks the seal on the jar holding her mother’s money.

(She thinks about smashing it, the whole thing, just for the satisfaction of hearing it broken into pieces, but it’s a good jar. She could use it again.)

Her next order of business, once she has bought and bartered and salvaged the equipment she needs, is to track down the Garciarona boy and offer him a deal: if he and his crew convert her stable into a workshop, then she will teach him how to calm a horse — and, more importantly, himself. Then he can wear his chaparreras for real, and not the way a little boy does, dressing up in costume.

“But … this is a good stable, señora,” he says, turning in a slow circle to take in the space. “What if you decide to own horses again?”

“I do not intend to travel further than this spot if I don’t need to,” she answers, with certainty. “Why, do you?”

The look he gives her is wry. “Do you think Mamá Isadora would allow that?”

With a sudden spurt of generosity, she puts a hand on his shoulder. “I think you’d be most valuable to her with a well-rounded skillset, and that includes long-distance travel on horseback, don’t you think?”

His mouth tugs in her direction, like she’s got it on a string. “I like your thinking, señora.”

So he brings in his racetrack-building friends and they knock down the stalls, saving the wood for new shelving (and if there’s one thing about Santa Cecilia that keeps catching her off guard, it’s how valuable every last plank of wood is. Well, comparatively — in her hometown, lumber grew back almost as fast as you could cut it down. No wonder the — the — the musicians treated everyone there like they were wealthy.) They put down flooring, find the best position for her equipment and her supplies, converting one of the stall doors into a window that faces the street through which she can conduct pick-ups and sign for deliveries.

He has a knack for this, she sees suddenly, watching a neat stack of dimensions appear in that little book of his, which he consults before okaying anything — it’s a determination, which isn’t quite the same thing as passion but might, in the end, serve him better. It has for her.

His boys learn not to stand still for very long, or run the risk of Imelda using their feet for sizing practice.

You can’t blame them. It’s a process that involves a lot of pins.

How does she expect to gain customers, though? Technical aptitude, she can obtain; like anything else worth doing, it takes practice and it takes love. That’s not what she’s worried about. Her friendly appeal is … not what she’s known for, and she’s not male, where at least aptitude would make a deficit of friendliness forgivable.

She tries not to stand still. It’s like asking to feel a draft; doubt slips coldly down the back of her blouse when she does.

Build the shop first, she tells herself.

First thing in the morning, she meets the Garciarona boy at the farrier’s. The two brown mares are long gone, but he kept her pinto for being a good nag with his new horses. He comes to the door with his sweetroll breakfast falling apart in his fingers and waves her in with a congenial, “ay, but you’re her family, señora, I’m not heartless! Go say hello.”

They enter the stables together, and Imelda leads Coco by the hand, asking, “Do you remember Mamá’s horse, Coco?”

At the sound of her voice, something bangs in one of the stalls, and then the pinto pops her head over the door. She immediately begins to snort and hop in place, tossing her head, and Imelda laughs, surprised by the sudden force of her own emotion: she hadn’t allowed herself the luxury of missing her horse, but oh, oh, how she did. She crosses to the stall and bends her head, letting the pinto lip playfully at her hairdo.

Coco peers up at the enormous profile, and one over-loud snort makes her yelp and fling herself against Imelda’s legs, seeking comfort.

“Oh — no, Coco, it’s all right,” Imelda says, and almost follows it up with, she’s not going to hurt you. But that’s not true, is it? Anything can hurt you if it puts its mind to it: dogs and horses, mothers and fathers. Instead, she says, “I won’t let her hurt you,” because that shifts the responsibility.

Then she straightens up and looks sidelong at the Garciarona boy. “Do you want to try?”

By mid-morning, he has the pinto eating out of his hand, and his expression is wondering.

“Thank you, señora,” he says, with the fervor of someone who’s found what they were always meant to be doing.

“Ach,” she says, and tugs Coco’s laces straight. “If you think just patting a horse’s nose is it and you’re done, you’ve got another thing coming. We’ve only just started.”

“What if I just steal her, and run away?” he says dreamily.

“I killed the last man who tried that.”

He blinks, visibly bumping back down to earth. “You did not.”

She just looks at him, and he starts to get nervous. “Don’t touch my horse. Tomorrow morning, niño, don’t be late.”

The next thing she does is she goes to the cemetery to buy the portrait of Héctor’s father.

It’s one of a dozen kept in a storeroom under the church, stacked in between choir robes and the sheet-wrapped nativity figures, to be brought out for the graveside ofrendas every Día de los Muertos. But no one’s put up this portrait for years and years, and the priest in charge of tending the graves is young and fond of gold, and it’s no trouble to get him to part with it.

She puts it in a prominent place inside the shop. The customers who come in, she lets their eyes find him first and then she says, “my beloved father-in-law, he taught me all I know,” and watches them relax.

A woman running her own shop is scandalous, after all, but it’s all right if she’s the provision of a man who came before her. Her customers see him and open up, approaching her with questions, and Imelda smiles thinly, without teeth.

“I congratulate you on your success,” Madre Emmanuela says to her, handing Coco over one day late on a Sunday. “I … did not know Señor Rivera had been a shoemaker.”

“Oh, it’s this little family-run place,” interjects another mother, who hitches her son up onto her hip and then confides to Imelda, “I like it, I don’t trust those broadsheets from the department stores, have you seen them, with the mail-in forms — how can they know anything about making shoes for you if they have never seen your feet?”

Madre Emmanuela shrugs. Department stores like Sanborns try to extend their reach beyond the big cities by distributing mail-in forms, which stirs the curiosity of the Santa Cecilia women but very little from a nun. Fortunately, the conversation moves on before Imelda is forced to lie.

She takes wisdom and puts it in her father-in-law’s mouth, smiles and assures her customers that he is overlooking the proceedings — see, look, there is his portrait. No, true, you couldn’t call him a handsome man, but he knew his shoes, and if pretty’s important, well, she’s pretty enough for both of them, don’t you think?

When they’re alone, she stands under his portrait. They both, the two of them, regard each other with frank dislike.

Does she have qualms about using a dead man like this?

“No,” she decides, and points at him. “Absolutely not. If your son wants a say in how I use his family, he should turn up and give me an earful.”

Things don’t pick up right away, but Imelda is expecting that — she hangs flyers and runs an ad, which is the extent of what she can afford, and waits for people to realize that the shoemakers they’ve had for years are complacent in their monopoly and don’t do anything to earn their business, not like she will.

Then, one day, as she’s struggling to get two rolls of brown leather over her head into a pigeonhole really only meant for one, the bell on the door rattles and a scratchy voice says, “Ay, señora! Let me help!”

“Thank you,” says Imelda, who can’t see, and then two hands grab the end of the rolls and heave them up with a grunt, letting Imelda slide them home.

She exhales gustily, and turns, looking at eye-level first —

— and then down.

“Oh,” she says.

She’d always known, of course, that the men of Casa Esposito were … different (“deformed, the lot of them, by God’s will,” was Señora Isadora’s opinion on them, but the señora also believed that bicycles were salacious instruments that would tempt girls into wanton behavior, so Imelda didn’t put much stock in this, either,) but despite her friendship with Señora Esposito when the children were babies, this is the first she’s met the husband: short, barrel-chested body, foreshortened legs. Standing in front of her, Señor Esposito only comes up to her waist, and behind him, his sons aren’t any taller.

When the silence stretches on a beat too long, he smiles.

It’s not really a smile, though. It’s the same rueful look Gabriel got the first time she called him a woman, and she promptly gives herself a shake.

“Thank you for that, they never seem quite so heavy as they do when you can’t put them down. Now,” she straightens her apron ties. “What can I do for you today, señores?”

“We’re here about getting some shoes fit,” and yes, she would hope so. “The man we’ve gone to in the past, he says we’ve got … peculiar feet, and charges us extra. We wanted to see what you will run us.”

Imelda tilts her head. The Espositos are a family of furniture-makers: customization work mostly, but also reupholstery; almost everyone she knows could proudly claim to own or know someone who owned a dining set made by them. Still, she sees what he means: the way they walk, stand, hold their own weight would be different than someone with longer legs, and so they’d need different requirements from their shoes.

Her mind races on ahead of her, thinking of reinforced soles and wanting measurements, but she forces it to slow.

“Well,” she says, and gestures. “My beloved father-in-law always reminded me that there’s no such thing as peculiar people, just special needs, so come — let me pull you up a stool, señor … ?“

“Francis,” says Señor Esposito obligingly. “And these are my sons, Benito and Julio.”

The boys are only a little older than Coco, and she nods at them both. Where’s Rosita? Imelda has had a soft spot for their older sister ever since she saw Imelda bent double with labor pains and fetched help without hesitation. She’s an average-sized girl, but next to her brothers and father she is toweringly tall. Doesn’t she need new shoes, too —

“And forgive me for saying so, but I knew Señor Rivera when he rode with the maderistas. He’s never said a useful thing in his life.”

Imelda blinks.

Oh.

Well. That’s too bad. She’d hoped the lie would last longer than that. She positions the stool, swallowing hard.

Señor Esposito takes one look at her and softens, all at once.

“I did know his wife,” he tells her, trying to hide the gentleness of it with a gruff cough. “Any man can hop on a horse and strap a bandolier to his chest, all that takes is knowing which direction to yell and point your gun, but it’s the women who made the whole thing work. I watched her run that rebel camp until the day Díaz poisoned it, despite her husband, despite a new baby every year.”

That’s who we named Coco after, Imelda thinks.

“What I’m saying, señora zapatera,” he continues, when she can’t manage to speak. “Is that we know a little something about it, this issue of legitimacy, and we would very much like your business.”

“Well,” Imelda croaks at last. “I am very happy to earn it. Which of your sons would like to go first?”

Julio looks at Benito. Benito looks at Julio. They break for the stool at the same time.

The Espositos are her loyal customers from that day forth.

 

*

 

One year becomes two, becomes three and four, and the portrait comes down.

She stops saying, “my beloved father-in-law always said,” and instead says, “I recommend you nothing but the best.”

“I don’t understand, you can get them cheaper by mail,” she hears Coco’s best friend say, in between the creaks of the rope swing slung over the cypress tree’s lowest-hanging branch. It’s a tandem swing, it takes two people to make it go. The twins’ idea, of course. “And it’s less work!”

“And they’re so cheaply made you’ll be buying a new pair of shoes within the year, and that costs more money in the long run!” Coco’s voice promptly responds, in the rote tone of a child who’s heard her mother say it a hundred times.

“Yes, but —“

Imelda pauses, setting down her eyelet laces so she can better hear Coco’s answer.

“My mamá says if you’re going to spend your money on anything in this life, you should spend it on your bedding and you should spend it on your shoes, because you’re going to live all your life in one or the other. And we make shoes you can live in.”

Soledad considers this.

“Is your mamá very smart, then?” she asks.

“The smartest!” Coco trills, without hesitation.

Four years becomes five, becomes six and then sixteen, and then there’s no one left to remember Señor Rivera. They talk only of Imelda Rivera and the comfort, the elegance of her shoes. In some circles, she supposes she’s still Señora Rivera of the no-good husband, like that’s somehow her fault, but when the youngest son of the furniture-makers comes and wrings the brim of his hat in his hands and asks if he might marry Coco, the head of the Rivera household folds her hands and studies him frankly, confident in the knowledge that she can pay for a dowry, a wedding, for flowers in the church so beautiful they could make sunlight stop and God Himself sigh — and that she could refuse this boy, too, knowing it won’t stop someone else from coming along to ask.

But she is not her uncle.

Her voice catches like a matchstick: after all this time, she has not lost her mountain accent. “You want him?”

Coco startles. The question has caught her off guard. She’d been staring wide-eyed at the back of Julio’s head, like she hadn’t been expecting him to say those things to her mother, like she’s only just now realizing how disarming it can be that there’s someone in this world who will announce it for all to hear: I love her, I love her.

I want to work alongside her for all my life.

I would marry you tomorrow, I’d go wherever you are, Imelda.

“I —“ Coco flounders. “Yeah, I guess — I mean.”

Julio looks at her.

She flushes, and corrects, “Yes! Mamá, yes, I do.”

“You cannot take it back,” Imelda warns, and doesn’t miss it, the flick Coco’s eyes make to their wall: their Madonna, their Juárez, the census picture of Imelda with Coco in her lap, the rest ripped away.

“I know,” says Coco, firmer.

“Then you shall be married, with my blessing. But — !“

She holds up a finger. Julio, who’d swung around to Coco with his hand extended, eyebrows volleyed to match her own delight, pauses, and follows the direction of her pointing finger: his hands, the familiar callouses there.

“No music,” Imelda says.

Mamá!” Coco protests immediately. “That’s not fair! He isn’t part of that misfortune, he shouldn’t be —”

“No music, doña,” Julio Esposito agrees. He does not raise his voice. “For Coco, that is a small thing to sacrifice.”

Julio!” Coco rounds on him, stunned.

But Imelda smiles.

As long as he lives, he keeps that promise.

 

*

 

Coco does not.

Imelda hears her sometimes: singing, first to the swell of her growing belly, then to each of her infants in turn, rocking them to sleep in her chair under the moonlight — every night, her and the moonlight, she’s always done it, like she cannot sleep unless she’s sure that it’s seen her. Imelda reminds her gently, and then not-so-gently, that a bad habit seeded now will only make it harder down the line.

So Coco gets smarter about it.

She stops letting Imelda hear.

 

*

 

Two years after she finishes the commission for Francis Esposito and his sons, cementing her place as a shoemaker in Santa Cecilia, a call at the front gate brings her out of her workshop.

She wipes the grease from her hands and heads that way, working herself up to a good grumble as she goes. The shop counter is there for a reason, any visitor can shout through there. The gate isn’t used much anymore except for deliveries — most pueblos this end of town have them, for the horses. But Imelda doesn’t have horses.

Two men wait for her outside. Imelda blinks at them until it occurs to her that no, she’s not seeing double. They are identical down to their pressed shirts. Eyeglasses sit lightly atop their noses like debris that got caught there. They come to attention, revealing themselves to be very tall indeed, and blink back at her.

For a moment, nothing happens.

“Yes — ?” Imelda starts to say, and then —

Recognition hits her just like that, and she’s stunned, flattened to her own cobblestones.

“Hola, Imelda,” says her brother Óscar.

“Little sister, it’s been awhile,” says her brother Felipe, smiling.

They open their arms.

Imelda backs away from them. Her hands go to her hips, to hide the way her knuckles whiten.

Explain,” she says, low and deadly, and is rewarded by their stuttering flinch, the sheepish way they drop their arms and exchange a look.

“Perhaps we could come inside?” Óscar tries.

“You should not deliver important news over someone’s threshold,” Felipe agrees.

Imelda vents out a breath out through her nose, but steps back to let them through.

It’s the time of year the cypress starts browning out, and even though she swept this morning before she laid out feed for the chickens a layer of brittle needles has reappeared on the cobbles and the well cover, which she brushes aside so she can perch on its edge. Her brothers come to stand before her.

In unison, they sweep their hats from their heads, pressing them to their chests.

Just like that, Imelda knows.

Oh, she thinks, through the static in her ears. And, oh no.

She watches their mouths form over the words. “— our mother —”

And then hears nothing again.

“When?” she asks numbly.

“Two weeks ago.”

Imelda tips her head back, staring skyward. The cypress branches trail over the roof of the workshop, dripping over the wall on the other side, and light dapples through them as they sigh back and forth. She closes her eyes, and patterns move on the backs of her eyelids.

Her brothers wait.

“Thank you for telling me,” she says, in a wooden way. “But you could have sent a letter. I thought my mother made it very clear I was to have no contact with my family.”

A look gets exchanged over her head.

“After she was buried, our uncle kicked us out,” says Felipe, with no preamble. “Our father made him promise that if anything happened to him, he would look after our mother, but that oath had been made before any of us were born and so didn’t include us. Our uncle felt no responsibility for us once our mother was gone. He’d done his duty as family.”

“We were just a drain on resources,” Óscar adds.

“A weakness to be —“

“— culled.”

“Damn him,” says Imelda.

Óscar and Felipe blink back at her, deeply shocked.

You had an apprenticeship, she wants to say. Why weren’t you in Zacatlán?

But even as she thinks it, she knows the answer: the clockmakers of Zacatlán were an indulgence, and with the good sturdy Consequela boys given to President Carranza as a gift, second-rate nephews like Óscar and Felipe would have been expected to come home to manage the business, to fill in for their betters until the betters came home. Her brothers wouldn’t have been given a choice, or any consideration at all.

Imelda trembles as she stands.

All that work into stealing them, but they hadn’t been able to stay stolen.

“God damn him,” she swears again for good measure, and spits on the ground.

It takes effort to calm herself, and she looks at them properly: the wrinkles in the elbows of their shirts, the visible wear around the heels of their shoes. Of course they hadn’t taken their horses when they left San Juan Albán, they’d given those to her years ago.

“You have nowhere to go?” she guesses.

They shake their heads.

Imelda makes a decision.

“Then you will stay with me — you will be part of my household.” Their expressions brighten, and she holds up a finger. “But. There are conditions.”

Their smiles freeze in place, but Imelda’s does not.

“First. You will meet my daughter, your niece. If she does not like you — if at any point you become to her what our uncle was to us, you are on your own. I will take you to the train station, I will pay for the fare to wherever you would like to start over, but you will not be welcome back here.

“Second, there will be no music. That means no singing, no whistling, no instruments of any kind.”

Felipe looks at Óscar, eyebrows pinched. Óscar makes an “I don’t know” gesture back at him, furtive and close to his body.

In time, perhaps, she’ll explain to them about — about Héctor, about — about — and how she’ll never know if they left her for each other, or for the world, or for music.

Then again, maybe she won’t have to. They’ve got their own reasons to be bitter: their uncle’s house had been a musical one, with all that emphasis on being perfectly in harmony with each other, individual notes working for the good of the whole chorus, so all those pleasant associations — maimed.

Imelda knows, however, that if she does not curb this now, then music will come creeping into the house the same way a rat will.

It will eat these foundations she’s trying to build here, right now. And she will do — whatever it takes, for Coco to never know that awful, hollowed-out ache, that Imeda cannot ignore in the moments when she remembers her cousin Ines saying, when he sings, I remember what we are capable of being. If she allows no music, then music will never be a threat.

“Third,” she holds up another finger. “Third … well. That is your decision.”

Before the afternoon is out, they’re in the registrar’s office.

He’s the same man who’d filed Imelda’s paperwork; squat, wide, with a broad valley accent and a bowtie tied much too tight around his Adam’s apple, eyes darting back and forth between Óscar and Felipe like a spectator at a sport.

“We are here today to strike the Consequela from our name,” Óscar says formally.

Felipe chimes in, “They are dead to us, and we to them.”

“Our primer apellido is a gift from our sister.”

“I am a Rivera.”

“I am also a Rivera. Let it be known.”

Afterward, as they descend the steps outside, Felipe remarks to his brother, “You know, it’s funny.”

Between them, Coco’s carrying one of their hands in each of hers with all the solemn concentration of a pallbearer in church, and so she’s not expecting it when they use their grip to swing her high up off the top step, lowering her gently to the next. She boggles in delight, and immediately starts tugging. Again, again.

Following behind them, smoothing down the ribbon holding the paperwork closed, Imelda pauses to watch.

It will be a running image her whole life. Imelda will see it a hundred, a thousand times: Óscar and Felipe, lifting Coco up between them. They’ll swing her off her bed in the morning, deaf to her complaints, “‘m not awake, Tío Óscar. Tío Felipe, tell him.” They’ll swing her down the cathedral steps, one on either side of her. They’ll heft her chair onto their shoulders to declare her quinceañera, proudly carrying her through the plaza as Imelda calls to the crowd.

With them as her uncles, Coco will want for nothing.

“You know,” Felipe says again. “When we first agreed to chaperone our sister’s meetings with her young musician, I did not imagine that one day we’d be taking his name.”

“We’re not,” Óscar answers, before Imelda can. “We’re taking hers.”

 

*

 

One of the earliest things Imelda ever remembers her primas scolding her for were her shoes, how she used to tie the laces into knots because she didn’t know how to do bows and didn’t want to admit it, already knowing she’d be mocked for her ignorance despite having never been given the opportunity to correct it. Her brothers found her hiding in their mother’s bed, and chorused at her until they realized she couldn’t get her shoes off, she’d knotted them so tight. At that point they stopped laughing and sat down with her. They painstakingly unpicked the knots one-by-one, until Imelda could wiggle her feet free. They showed her how to make loops, how to hold them down with her fingers.

In the shop, they poke around, looking at the equipment and the materials. At the far end, sturdy pots bubble over a makeshift stove. Blocks of chalky pigment sit waiting for Imelda to break them up and add them, stirring until the dyes reach a color that satisfies her. She’ll then lay the leather out on the table and apply the dye in broad strokes, layer after layer, while the scent gets into her nose and makes her useless for smelling anything else for days.

A cart clatters by on the street, coming close enough to fleck mud onto the countertop. There’s more traffic now; the neighborhood is starting to fill in.

Óscar picks up a chisel.

“Shoes,” he says to his brother. “We’ll engineer shoes.”

“Right,” Felipe agrees.

A beat.

They turn to Imelda. “How does that work?”

She laughs, and extends her hand.

“Come,” she says, not unkindly, “I’ll teach you.”

 

*

 

“Mamá,” says Coco. At nineteen, her braids go all the way down her back, and these she impatiently shoves out of the way. “Over here.”

A sow from the neighboring yard has meandered right up to the door, hopefully rooting her snout around the hard-packed dirt, and Imelda turns her away with her knees as persuasively as she can before ducking under the mantle of Soledad’s home.

The interior space is mostly taken up with vats, full of maize in various stages of preparation, and the steamers are stacked together in neat towers and ready on her table, still leaking heat from underneath their lids. These Soledad will rope to a pole and carry across her shoulders as she goes door-to-door, selling her tortillas to the cooks from the big houses, the construction sites and the rectory, so they’ll have them on hand for the next morning’s breakfast. She’s saving up for a cart — or maybe a bicycle.

Standing on the threshold, Imelda and Coco hesitate.

Then Coco says, “I’ll do these,” and picks up the rope and pole. “You — stay with her, Mamá. And tell her I’ll be right back.”

It’s a small space, barely two rooms, the best Soledad could afford by herself. As soon as Coco adjusts the pole across her shoulders, careful not to knock any of the lids askew, she heads out into the dusk and Imelda turns towards the bedroom door —

Just as someone steps through it.

Sister Lupe lifts her head and stops. They stare at each other.

Before either of them can speak — Imelda’s taken great pains not to be alone with Sister Lupe, not in years and years — a sound comes from behind the closed door. A wail, low and between clenched teeth. Soledad.

Imelda strides forward, fully prepared to shove the nun aside, but Sister Lupe catches her arm, physically blocking her.

“That’s a delivery room now. Only family’s allowed in.”

“But she is family. I’m her mother,” Imelda says blankly.

“I beg your pardon,” is the immediate reply. “That is not the infant girl I placed in your stocking drawer nineteen years ago, Señora Rivera.”

Imelda corrects, “She is Coco’s best friend. Has been since they were knee-height. She is my daughter in all the ways that matter.”

“Then you know the rumors?” Sister Lupe gives her a beady look.

Imelda returns it, as coldly reptilian as she knows how.

She’s not going to help. She’s going to make Sister Lupe say it.

Unfortunately, this nun has never been easy to shame. “There’s no husband, is there? He’s not an aero propeller salesman. Nor is he an ornithologist lost at sea, chasing an elusive albatross. Or a zapatista soldier, charged with guarding Zapata’s tomb until his remains are returned home.”

Ah, yes. Imelda’s lips twitch up fondly in spite of herself. She loves those stories.

Sentiment is not on Sister Lupe’s list of tolerances, either.

“The rumor is,” she continues, an edge to her voice, “her baby’s been fathered by a married man, and you can take your pick from all her customers if you’re looking for the culprit,” and Imelda’s humor evaporates in a rush of rage so intense she feels it in her eyeballs.

“If that’s what they like to say —“ She doesn’t realize she’s closed with Sister Lupe until a hand bumps her sternum, stopping her approach. Imelda is a tall woman, and looming into people’s spaces to intimidate them is a trick she learned from her musicians. She breathes out hard through her nostrils. “Then the brunt of the blame is clear, and does not lie with Soledad or her baby. Nor does it have any bearing on why I’m here. She needs her mother.”

Soledad’s own parents, whose attitude towards their daughter had always been apathetic at best, shut their doors when Soledad made it clear she didn’t intend to get married. They won’t help.

“I won’t abandon her. Not now.”

“I thought that was your legacy,” Lupe fires, snakebite fast.

For a moment, Imelda hears nothing, sees nothing; the colossal roar inside of her is too loud.

“— girls named Socorro and Soledad,” Sister Lupe’s saying; her lips with their deep, defined wrinkles keep moving, but her voice filters through as if from a very long way off. “Don’t you think that’s rich, coming from a mother who calls her daughters Silence and Loneliness?”

“You may think stupid breeds stupid, Sister,” Imelda says, “and that abandonment breeds abandonment,” but that had been him. “And it does, only if we treat it as inevitable. I won’t let it. It ends here, with me.”

Sister Lupe thins her eyes.

“Besides,” Imelda takes her shoulders in a firm grip and moves her. “By your own admission, that makes her my daughter. I’m going in there.”

A hand snatches her wrist, and they pirouette deftly, with surprising strength.

“Señora,” says Sister Lupe. “I have delivered almost every last baby born in Santa Cecilia. Let me do my job. If you want to help, go to the church. Tell them to bring the chair.”

“Oh, that —“

A voice interrupts.

“Imelda? Is that Imelda Rivera?” Soledad’s voice — high, reedy with pain. “Oh, please. Oh, please, please, let her in here!”

Sister Lupe looks at Imelda. Imelda looks right back.

Slowly, she peels her fingers off her wrist, one-by-one. “Coco is handling Soledad’s evening sales right now, as she will need the money. When she comes back, you can send her for the chair then. Or,” she continues, still staring her down, “if that takes too long, then I will hold her on her feet — and you will catch.”

A beat passes.

Sister Lupe’s mouth quirks. “I did not lose track of you, girl, no matter how you tried to lose me. You’ve come a long way from that little runaway wife who had no friends, thinking the problems of other women had nothing to do with her.”

“I would hope so,” Imelda replies, and then she goes through that door so that the next girl doesn’t have to do what she did, alone and in pain. That’s all you can do, is whatever you can to make sure the next girl does not suffer like you.

And so it goes forward, into the next generation.

 

*

 

A few days before the wedding, as Imelda checks the dimensions for the third time — the shoes are a present for the groom, a trim church-going pair in cured brown leather with white accents, with special supports in the soles to ease the strain Julio’s body puts on his foreshortened legs — she stops and glances down the table.

“What’s the likelihood,” she asks, “that Coco’s children will be born with Julio’s condition?”

Slowly, using her finger to mark her place, Rosita closes the account book.

“Of my mother’s three children, two of us were born like our father, and I was not,” she answers levelly. “Having no other samples to derive from, I would say it’s half, doña.”

Outside, when men are around, Rosita’s habit is to wring her hands and peek at them through her eyelashes, coquettish and giggly — almost off-puttingly so. But when they’re alone, the syrupy high voice mellows out into something genuine, sweet, and assured.

How are your sums? Imelda had asked, when Coco made it clear to her that accepting Julio into their household meant taking Rosita, too.

Fair, doña.

Imelda had looked her up and down, this plump and pretty woman, and decided briskly, The accounting takes up too much of my time. You will man the counter while the store is open, and the ledger will be your responsibility. Count this as your probationary period.

“What about you?” she asks now, probing.

Rosita laughs, an easy tinkling sound that puts Imelda in mind of flowers in glass vases, of the first cool touch of holy water on Sunday morning.

“I’ve known from a young age that no man is going to marry me, not when there’s such a high chance I will bear him dwarfish sons,” and there’s a pause, where they sit at opposite ends of the table and contemplate that same unfairness, that her father’s genetics will be considered Rosita’s fault, but her brothers could marry if they wanted. Rosita looks at her, and her face softens. “I don’t mind, doña. Truly.”

“I … do not like the idea that living with me will hurt your chances,” Imelda hedges.

“I lack nothing,” Rosita answers promptly, and then a glint comes to her eye. “Although … if you’re worried, there’s a way you can make it up to me.”

Imelda cringes internally.

“… what is it?”

In a rush, Rosita says, “Let me take control of your garden. Please, you have the perfect spot for roses, they’d practically take care of themselves, and I’ve never seen a vegetable patch so woebegone, I know exactly what I’d do, you wouldn’t have to lift a finger — it would make me very happy, Mamá Imelda —“

 

*

 

Flowers of every kind spill out of the front of the church, as single stems and paper-wrapped bouquets and wreaths on tripod stands heaped up along either side of the steps. Once or twice while passing through Mariachi Plaza, Imelda has seen the pilgrims changing them.

All of Santa Cecilia, grieving.

The Riveras scarcely notice.

“Look, baby girl, they’ve decked everything out for you,” Soledad loudly whispers as they climb the steps, and a nearby mourner lifts their head and glares. Soledad’s oblivious, as any good godmother should be, cooing and bringing Victoria’s tiny face up to her mouth to bestow a kiss upon it.

Coming up behind her with Julio and Julio’s brother Benito, Coco makes a protesting noise. “Hand her back now, comadre, will you?”

And Soledad cries, “¡No lo haré!” and darts inside.

Imelda slows just inside the doors, filtering behind her family as they dip their fingers in the holy water and cross themselves. There are even more flowers inside the church. Now this is just ridiculous. You would have thought he died yesterday, not a month ago.

The closest arrangement has his photograph propped up in the middle. Imelda comes to a halt without meaning to.

There’s no telling how recent it is, but underneath that wide sombrero she sees the peek of grey hair. His face is largely unchanged from how she remembers it; broad jaw, dimple in his chin, smug little mustache.

I hope it was worth it, your five minutes of fame, she thinks at him.

The scope of the radio, the presence of the stage. After all those years, promising he’d be famous — he found cinema, and made it his.

So … he probably wouldn’t see it her way. To him, he got what he wanted, dealt with none of the responsibility, and died before he could watch himself fade into obscurity. The man in the photograph smiles, leaning back. He holds her husband’s guitar cradled against his chest. In her ears, her pulse thunders.

A hand touches her shoulder.

“Come on, love,” Gabriel says to her, with a gentle tug. “The priest’s here. We’re ready to begin.”

He’s taken his hat off, and Imelda compulsively reaches up to fix his errant hat hair, tolerating the indulgent smile he gives her for it. Here’s someone else who’s slept in her spare room, eaten at her table, seen her with her hair in all stages of undone. He traveled for days to be here for Coco’s baptism, and here he is again for her daughter’s. They both are, kind of.

“Imelda?” He starts to sound worried.

Before she can say anything, Soledad’s son comes up behind them and peeks around Gabriel’s leg. He’s five now, and solemn.

He spots Ernesto. Eyes widening, he whispers to them, “Señores, that musician,” he puts the same emphasis on the word Imelda does, the way one might say, that cockroach. “He needs to button up his shirt!”

Startled, Gabriel and Imelda don’t suppress their laughter in time, and the moment passes.

She lets him link their elbows together, takes the little boy’s hand in her other, and they go to join the rest of their family in the side chapel.

Let Ernesto de la Cruz rot with his flowers, she thinks; the Riveras have their very first grandchild to welcome.

For Victoria, Imelda had dug out Coco’s old baptismal gown. Julio keeps having to help her adjust the fancy lace train.

She stands back now and takes a moment to be amazed at what she managed to hold onto, in spite of everything, all these things that other people had given her: the mobile with the prancing horses from her brothers; the ring from her cousin Ines; the gold earrings from the lonely widow; the white baptismal gown from Ernesto; Coco from Héctor.

Afterwards, once Victoria has finished squalling her indignity at having water dumped over her face, Imelda pulls Coco aside.

“I have a gift for you, mija,” she says.

She hands over the book.

Its cover had worn off in her pack sometime in 1919, when Coco was still small enough to be carried in a sling on her back. They crossed the border back into Oaxaca, passing through fields of corn so high their tassels glinted golden in the sun, and at the next place they sought posada for themselves and the horses in exchange for a song, the innkeeper kissed the top of Coco’s head and told her, ay, you will speak to my daughter’s husband, he binds books, and it was done just like that: the new cover was a hard binding with an effigy of Our Lady of Guadalupe on it.

Grown now, Coco blinks in astonishment.

“This is …” She trails off.

It’s Imelda’s Bible. The one her own mother gave her, that Imelda never lost. Coco learned her letters from it, copied the entirety of Proverbs from it in big crooked swoops until she got the hang of it. It had gone with them to church every Sunday throughout her whole childhood; Imelda, Coco, her uncles, and this Bible.

Coco has her own, of course, a quince años gift from her godfather that had been shelved in her room, but …

“Where’s …”

She’s not finishing her thoughts, but Imelda doesn’t need her to: she knows Coco better than she knows anyone in this life. She takes the Bible back from her and lets it fall open: even reconstructed, the break in the pages is still there, well-worn from all the times Imelda has checked it.

(When she was younger, she took it for granted that God promised the descendants of Abraham a land to call their own, and that meant Mexico. It hadn’t seemed like much a stretch of the imagination to her at that age, that you could flee Egypt and find Mexico in one trip. Even now, knowing it’s really talking about Mesopotamia, Imelda wants to believe that God keeps her country close. That they are the effigy on the cover of His own book.)

Coco looks down, skimming over the chapter and verse — so sayeth the Lord, I will not let you be lost, or forgotten.

She closes her eyes, holding it against her heart.

 

*

 

In the 1940’s, leading into the 50’s, the whole world wants what Mexico has.

That means stability, mostly, and Imelda wonders at the state of the world, that anyone can look at what she lived through and confuse a temporary lack of armed revolt for peace. But her country manages to stay out of the major global conflicts during those years, focusing instead on fixing its own broken internal infrastructure. They cannot survive another Revolution.

By the time the rest of the world is ready to return to normal, Mexico has a stable economy, and a thriving output of culture, arts, television, and music.

Mexican cinema’s been seen in theaters the world over. A golden age, they’ll call it later. The Cuban sound dominates the dance halls, but mariachi music will do in a pinch. Or so Imelda’s been told — any news of music is many layers removed by the time it reaches her.

The first she hears it, those Caribbean drums backing the swelling bolero sound of “Bésame Mucho”, it’s coming from a radio sitting on the counter of the tobacconist where Imelda buys her newspapers and rolls of mints. Her body betrays her, remembering how it felt to move to a sound like that — back in 1917, when the mudslides took out the roads in the Sierra Sur and trapped them in that village. There’d been a drummer from Costa Chica, and Imelda had felt his drums in her blood for days.

Seeing the look on her face, the clerk goes pale and fumbles for the knob, turning the radio down. “Sorry, señora,” he says meekly.

For a long time, it’s as if Mexico can do no wrong. The children of the Porfiriato, older now and in power, doing the work they’d waited their whole lives to make come true. Imelda watches it happen with pride, and not a little bit of unease. It’s Chicharrón’s lessons about apex predators all over again. Someone’s going to see their success and come in at the bottom, trying to destabilize it.

It’s also around this time that Imelda’s brothers politely ask her to stop introducing them to women.

(And that’s too bad, really, those Zapotec twins would have been perfect. They were the right age, recent transplants from the mountains. Imelda went to a lot of effort to organize those play-dates, thank you. She would have liked to have seen it, a set of twins married to a set of twins.)

“We’re almost fifty, Imelda,” Óscar points out, exasperated.

“Times have changed,” Felipe adds. “Women no longer have to scrape the bottom of the barrel and settle for the oddballs if they want a husband.”

“You’re not —“ Imelda starts, hotly.

They hold up their hands, meaning, please let us finish.

“We are never going to be separate.”

“Not in life, not in marriage, not in death. And we simply aren’t going to find someone who will accept two husbands with the understanding that in practice there’s only one.”

Imelda goes still.

Felipe’s eyes crease sorrowfully. “How can we ask that of anyone?”

“People will always whisper about her. She’ll be the butt of their jokes, because people can’t say anything about anyone else’s business unless it’s crass.” Óscar’s mouth folds, too. “It’s too much to ask from a spouse. We can’t do it.”

For a moment, there’s no sound — everyone else is outside. Coco’s breaking bricks for the dye, calling to her husband who is carefully piloting Victoria over the cobbles, helping her keep her small bicycle balanced with the power of her own momentum.

The brothers glance at each other, their expressions rueful.

And —

Imelda says, “That arrangement has been done before and will be done again.”

Imelda says, “If you want it, you can have it.”

Imelda says, “The problem isn’t finding a woman who will have you both, it’s finding someone who is comfortable knowing she will always, always come second. That nothing will surpass the importance you have to each other and that she will not be prioritized first. Who is willing to live with the fear that you could leave her and be just fine, whereas she would be left struggling without you. It’s a question of whether or not you are willing to be so unfair, just so you can have her.”

She runs out of air and catches herself before anything else comes pouring out, reeling back.

Taking a fortifying breath, she steals a glance at her brothers’ faces and knows at once they are reconstructing the last thirty years of her life.

Imelda,” says Óscar, open-eyed and astonished.

And that cannot be tolerated. Imelda shoves herself back from her station and stands, gathering her things.

“You are free to do as you like, this household will stand with you so long as she is not a musician,” she says shortly.

It’s the closest they ever come to talking about it.

Later, while Coco’s sweeping up the chalky bits around her station and listening to Julio and Rosita’s conversation about the red planet of Mars with her head tilted, Felipe nudges his brother.

Quietly, he asks, “Do you think … ?”

Óscar looks up, just as Coco stops and plants an elbow on the table next to Julio and says, eyebrows wagging, “So you’d say the planet that comes after Marte is miércoles?” and the Esposito siblings groan and pretend to slide to the floor in misery. Coco resumes sweeping, cackling to herself.

Óscar and Felipe exchange a wry look.

“Héctor’s,” they agree in unison.

 

*

 

Rosita has a friend named Paula who is as small and silent as Rosita is large and laughing. She’s got hair, skin, and eyes all the same uniform shade of brown and sternly angular features, which gives her the appearance of a figurine someone had been whittling from wood and then decided against at the last moment. It suits her serious attitude, and as the years pass and she never steps out in Mariachi Plaza with anyone, Imelda figures her parents will pledge her to the convent in due time. It’s what happened to unmarried girls in Imelda’s day, and besides, she might be happier studying to be a physician with the other nuns.

Instead, she turns up in the shoe shop and Rosita brings her before Imelda, saying, “We were hoping you might like to give her a job!”

Blindsided, Imelda works her mouth for a moment before managing, “You — wish to be a shoemaker?”

Paula steals a sidelong look at Rosita, who nods encouragingly.

“Oh, dear.” Her voice comes out faint. “I’ve never tried, I don’t think I’d have much of a talent for it, but,” she glances down, eyes darting like talent is something that might be found on the floor, and then she straightens up with sudden confidence. “You’ve got quite the camp going here, señora, and camps need food.”

And that’s how Casa Rivera gets their cook.

They move her things into Rosita’s room, across the hall from Coco and Julio, and what Imelda had took for a studious remoteness turns out to be the opposite: Paula has a passion for the minutiae, and that means she puts effort into every last detail of whatever she does, whether it’s in cooking or painting or pretending to be one of the Three Wise Men delivering presents to the girls on the Epiphany.

The kitchen transforms under her care. The old soot stains finally get washed from the walls to be replaced with a proper gas stove, and Paula’s enameled pots appear in among Imelda’s heavy black traveling iron, her molinillos tucked in with the spoons and stirrers (“she has a sweet tooth,” Rosita confesses, and then giggles at Imelda’s look, “don’t let her face fool you, she’s not always sucking a lemon!”) Victoria and Elena learn to cook at her apron strings, husking corn and grinding down chiles for mole in exchange for shavings off the block of chocolate Paula keeps in a tin on the top shelf. Imelda makes sure they know to make the sign of the cross before cooking with maize, and can tell by the way they dart their eyes at each other that they think she’s being silly, but Imelda does it because her mother did it and her cousin’s mothers did it and their mothers before them, so there’s got to be a good reason for it. You listen to your grandmothers, understand?

Rosita and Paula paint flowers on everything, ringing them around the sides of the enamel pots and embroidering them into the trim on the curtains. Forget-me-nots, bachelor’s buttons, sunflowers and marigolds; Rosita brings back armfuls from the market for inspiration — the vases on the kitchen windowsill and the counter in the shop always have something fresh in them, and what isn’t used there they fold into decorations for the family. When Imelda can’t sleep, woken by memories of bloated hanged men dangling from the trees and skulls smashed by iron under a Michoacán sky, she listens to them in the main room, the way they laugh with each other as they work by lamplight, quick before the flowers dry out. Crowns for themselves, for Coco, for Victoria and Elena, carnations for Julio’s button-hole, to tuck under the bands on Óscar and Felipe’s hats, and a brooch for Imelda.

“I’m still not sure I understand,” Paula comments to Rosita, sotto voice, after the twins catch Soledad’s older boy marching the younger around the well and stop them mid-chorus, reminding them, no music! and yes, that counts!

Imelda doesn’t think she’s meant to overhear, but the acoustics in the courtyard had been one of the pueblo’s selling points, back in the day. Paula’s voice carries without assistance.

“It’s bad luck, here,” Rosita answers.

“So we can’t even go to the cinema? Because of the music? There’s always music in movies.”

“I’ve never had a good reason to go to the cinema. It sounds too distracting.”

“But —“

“It’s bad luck, dearest mine,” Rosita cuts over her, in a tone that brooks no argument. “I don’t want either of us to be responsible for bringing bad luck to this family, not after everything they’ve done for us.”

“I suppose not,” Paula says, and, “I sure do miss the dancing.”

A beat.

“Hey, remember when — what we were, eleven? Twelve? And we tried out for the junior division because we thought we had a chance of being selected for the Guelaguetza?”

“Last two Mondays of every July,” Rosita agrees. “It was our — um, enthusiasm that counted, I think.”

Another beat.

They burst out laughing.

And then, some ten years into Paula’s employment with them, Imelda comes into the kitchen unexpectedly and finds them with their arms around each other’s waists, swaying together in a soundless slow dance she cannot mistake for anything else, and so many things suddenly make sense, all at once.

The ground is not where she left it. Unbalanced, she sinks into the chair by the stove.

“Imelda?” Rosita says worriedly, sweeping her skirts to the side and crouching in front of her, but Imelda’s seeing double and she covers her face with her hands, trying to stave off the sense of vertigo.

She can see them, is the thing, as clearly as she can see the women in front of her.

The … the musicians. Soap on their chins, towels over their shoulders. Ernesto with his tongue tucked into the corner of his mouth in concentration as he drags the razor up, the absent way Héctor leaned down to kiss his shoulder. Unselfconscious. Affectionate. The way you kiss when you’re sure of a person —

Is the same way Rosita and Paula were holding each other, just now. Like for all Imelda’s warnings about music, the one thing they’ve got stuck in their heads is each other, the only chorus they keep coming back to.

Oh, Imelda, you’re so stupid.

All this time, all those hints about husbands, the inevitability of it, like of course their stay in her house was only temporary until they found a man — oh, Santa María, she fell into the same trap she so abhorred as a young woman.

She breathes harshly, digging her nails into her scalp.

All this time, she could have been helping them live.

Except —

She eases her grip. Except, they were already doing that.

Exactly what they were doing. You don’t ask permission, you find a place where you can live and you live it. If no one’s going to give you the script, you write it yourself.

“Imelda …”

Paula hangs back, arms crossed over her chest and her face closed up, shuttered, nobody home, but Rosita’s still knelt beside her chair. Her beautiful face begins to crumple.

“We’re so sorry,“ she starts, watery. “We —“

“No.” At last, Imelda finds her voice, and to her relief, it does not shake. “No. Do not apologize. Never apologize.”

And, before she can second-guess herself —

“Let me tell you something.”

“What is it?” Rosita says, in trepidation.

“I met Coco’s father when I was sixteen years old —“ and even though she directs her voice to the steel toes of her own boots, she doesn’t miss the startled look Rosita and Paula exchange over her head. “He was the smallest mariachi in that whole bunch, but when he played for me, something inside me stopped moving. Or started moving. Or both at once, I don’t know, it’s hard to describe. I was eighteen when we had Coco, twenty-two when he left me without apology.

“Were you counting? That’s six years. Six years of my life with him in it. And what’s that, really? To me now, six years can pass and I’d hardly see them go, why does it feel like he was such a monumental part of my life?

“Because when I was younger, he was. When I was younger, a year was forever. You could know the entirety of each other in a year, and those six years were a third of my life to me then. And it was the most wonderful thing in the world, to be known.”

As she talks, her eyes wander over the kitchen interior: all the painted surfaces, the miniature Guadalupen portrait that came with Rosita, the phonetic primers from school that Elena’s left half-completed on the table. There is very little here that has not been improved upon by the additions to her family.

At last, she comes to look at them.

“I wouldn’t wish to take that feeling from anyone. You are a Rivera,” this to Rosita. “You are a Rivera,” to Paula. “And so you will always be. Family comes first.”

 

*

 

In 1950, Soledad brings her boys by the shop and kisses each of them on the top of the head, saving the last for the baby before she deposits him into Coco’s arms. Elena scoots over, tugging her mother’s elbow down so she can get a good look at his face. She scrunches hers up, unimpressed.

“I’ll be back before you have time to miss me,” Soledad promises them, and to Coco, “thank you for watching them.”

“You are my comadre,” Coco kisses her cheek. “It is no trouble at all.”

The next week, an earthquake completely levels parts of Jalisco.

Madre Emmanuela’s assistant, who’s been training to replace her ever since the Mother Superior’s vision failed completely, comes by with pleas for donations and volunteers to send north on the next train. Imelda doesn’t think anything of it — of course Casa Rivera will contribute. That’s what you do. There’s nothing in this world more Mexican than solidarity in crisis.

It’s only when she turns around that she sees Coco’s ashen face.

“That’s,” she whispers, with an awful, yawning horror in her voice. “That’s … Soledad …”

Imelda’s stomach stops being where she left it.

“You don’t think …”

Two days after that, after the shop’s closed up for the night, Sister Lupe comes by and pounds at the gate until the twins let her in. There’s dust on her wimple.

“I wanted to be the first to warn you,” she says without preamble, speaking directly to Imelda. “Her parents got the letter. They’ll take the boys.”

In her peripheral, Coco sinks to the ground.

“They can’t have the boys,” Imelda responds flatly. Rosita’s gone to Coco’s side, propping her up; there’s an airlessness there, the threatening vacuum of grief and Imelda cannot look at her or her voice will break right in half. “They’ve never even met the boys. What right do they —”

“They’re family,” Sister Lupe says shortly.

I am family,” Imelda snarls. “My daughter is family. They have ignored her for thirteen years.”

“Why do you think I’m here? They don’t know where the boys are staying, or else they’d be here already. They’ll wait for them to go to school tomorrow, and take them then.” Sister Lupe’s eyes dart to Coco. “The baby they’ll collect later. If they’re here. I don’t know, I’m an old woman. I might have seen nothing.”

Imelda swallows hard.

“Thank you, Sister,” she manages, with difficulty.

The twins see Sister Lupe safely back to the rectory, and everyone else reconvenes in the kitchen, where Paula grabs her molinillo and starts making everyone hot chocolate. No one says anything. Tears pour fast and silently down Julio’s face into his mustache. A stack of towels sits folded on the corner of the table, from where the children had been assembling costumes; just this afternoon, when their biggest worry was which saint they were going to be for the school march. None of them were going as Saint Cecilia, patroness of music, because that was the easiest thing to pick (and there would always be at least one smart-aleck who’d come dressed as Ernesto de la Cruz.) What are the boys going to do now?

Coco drifts out, and when she returns, she’s got the baby in her arms, sleepy and fussing at the interruption. Soledad’s third son. Her last son.

Who will never know her.

Imelda grips the back of her chair until her knuckles stand out white. For one moment, then the next, she allows the grief to roll through her; breathes through the tectonic shift it makes; the map inside of her rearranging around the absence, like a cenote opening huge and fatally deep.

No one at this table even thought to prepare for a life that didn’t have Soledad in it. Her big laugh, her ridiculous stories, the blatant lies she told everyone about the whereabouts of her childrens’ fathers, her —

Rosita breaks the silence.

“Is there anywhere we can take them?”

They all look at her.

She blinks roundly at them. “The nun made it sound like that’s what she wanted us to do. Right? I thought that’s what she was trying to tell us. That if we don’t want the grandparents to have them, we should move them.”

Imelda makes a mental tally. Her family in the mountains — no. Her husband, galavanting who-knows-where — no. The ranch where Chicharrón and Gabriel hired out of for cattle season went belly-up so President Cárdenas could build his highway through the heart of Oaxaca, and besides, ranching still isn’t a good life for a child. Nor is it a good hiding place.

She looks around, and sees the same blank look mirrored back to her. There’s nobody. Everyone they could trust is right here, and no court in Mexico will grant them custody — not if it seems like they implicitly supported Soledad’s lifestyle. An unmarried woman, three children, self-sufficient and self-employed. No, it’s the grandparents who would be seen as making the upstanding, responsible choice, for turning her out. They’d be holy, for taking her bastard children. No wonder they’re in such a hurry to get their hands on them.

Coco says what they’re thinking. “There’s no one.”

“We’ll watch over them,” Julio says immediately. “As best we can. Victoria goes to school with them, and so will Elena, when she’s old enough. We’ll invent reasons to keep them close. We can keep tabs on them.”

Silently, Paula takes the pot off the stove and starts pouring it into mugs. Coco paces in a slow circuit, bouncing the baby and not looking up from his face.

The children are all asleep in the girls’ room. They’re old enough to know that everything’s going to change.

“Ach!” Imelda hisses through her teeth. It’s such a familiar sound that everybody moves unconsciously, settling in for the inevitable Imelda-grade rant. “We shouldn’t have let her go to Jalisco! We knew what kind of place it was! It’s —“

Coco cuts her off.

“Mamá.”

And Imelda’s teeth snap shut.

In a perfectly even, pleasant voice, her daughter tells her, “If you even think about turning this into a lesson about how music brings nothing but bad luck, I will take them. And I will leave.”

Julio jerks, letting out a frog-like noise of surprise. The look he gives his wife is wide-eyed and questioning. Paula looks to Rosita, who looks to her brother, and no one looks at Imelda, not even her daughter, who does not lift her eyes from Soledad’s son.

And Imelda knows two things at once:

One, that Coco had been waiting for her to say it. Imelda Rivera will always blame music.

Two, that this is where Imelda must give. If Coco, the twins, Julio, Rosita and Paula — if all of them were expected to make sacrifices in order to belong to this household, then this is where Imelda must meet them. Not everything is allowed to be about her, and her anger, not anymore.

Unperturbed by how soundlessly, bloodlessly every alliance at the table just shifted, Coco continues her circuit, and Imelda watches her and sees, for the first time, a future in which she is not there: where Coco runs the shop, runs the house, makes shoes and raises the children, and keeps them together.

She closes her mouth.

Coco lifts the baby, and presses a kiss to his brow. “Hear that?” she murmurs. “We’ll be your guardian angels.”

 

*

 

Her ability to transition from shade to sunlight and adjust her vision accordingly is the first to go.

Her ability to distinguish fine detail at a close range is the second; she takes to tucking a pair of lenses through the button-hole in her blouse, and when she loses those, puts them on a chain around her neck.

Her mending and needlework suffer. They were never her strength — and when she feels vicious, she tells herself it serves her right for assuming her musicians would always be here to do this part, the clothing — and in a culture where your love for your daughter is directly proportional to how much detailed embroidery you can put in her clothes, Imelda senses her impending failure, and refuses it.

She’s alone in her chair by the window the next time it happens, when she pulls the fabric to lie flat and realizes she’s messed up the simplest of schoolgirl stitches, and it boils up in her all at once.

“God damn it!” she bursts out, and she wads it all up in frustration and throws it down, where it lays in a heap on the rug.

A stirring in the hallway, and voice says, “Mamá Imelda?”

She curses again, this time silently.

“It’s all right, Julio,” she calls back, and pushes herself to her feet so she can retrieve the offending item. Quietly, still furious with herself, she picks up her scissors and starts cutting away all the work she just did.

Shoes appear in her peripheral; brown leather, smooth white wingtips. A hand covers hers, stilling it.

“You can leave that with us,” Julio tells her, with the kind of round-eyed gentleness that could kill you, if you let it. “Let us help.”

Imelda bristles at him. “I am fine, I have it,” she snaps.

Usually, any display of displeasure is enough to make him cow away from her, but he stood up to her once, when he asked for Coco’s hand. That same unshakeable calm is present now, as he says, “Aren’t you the one who told us we are not consequences? Our children — they are not consequences, either?”

He gestures, and Imelda realizes with a sharp humiliating sting that everyone else has filtered into the room, hanging back by the door and watching: she must not have been as alone as she thought.

“Oh, bah —“ she tries, but Julio doesn’t let her.

“That trusting the wrong person is not our fault? You don’t have to do everything by yourself anymore, Mamá.”

I’m not! Imelda wants to protest. She’s gotten very good at delegating the tasks she can’t be expected to accomplish on her own: Rosita does the accounts, Paula does the cooking, Coco can visit suppliers and make orders in her name if there’s something more pressing that demands her oversight. That was hard enough! Imelda doesn’t need anything else taken away from her, or else what’s going to happen if tragedy strikes and she can’t take charge?

“Let us help,” Julio says again.

Imelda pulls her glasses off her nose and looks up at the silent, watchful faces: Óscar and Felipe, Rosita and Paula, Victoria and Elena with their mother between them, their hands on her shoulders. Victoria is nearly as tall as the twins now.

For the first time in a very long time, Imelda relinquishes.

And her family rallies around her to help.

 

*

 

Later in her life, the confusion catches up with her.

She supposes it’s like this for everyone, once they reach a certain age, although she never remembers to ask anyone to confirm. Things get lost between her brain and her mouth too often for her liking, and the present seems … almost fluid, like trying to hold water in her cupped hands. It’s always leaking. She cannot remember if she set food in the mouse traps ten minutes ago, and when she stands on the tile to shout at the children, be careful, come wash your hands, get that out of your mouth, it’s as if she has to run through all their names before she finally picks up the right one, even though she knows it. She knows she knows it.

In contrast, certain memories from her youth obtain almost technicolor clarity. Every sense recalls them, like the pincushion cactus her aunt kept in a blue pot in the courtyard of the Consequela hacienda, that grew too large to lift and so calcified in its pot, and bloomed with dozens of tiny magenta flowers each summer in spite of everything. She’d once thought she’d never see anything so beautiful, but it turned out they grew wild in the valleys, and Imelda remembers feasting her eyes until she felt over-full, swollen with it.

The color of the sky, too, over the valley at the start of June, a kiln-fired blue unlike anything Imelda’s ever seen recreated —

— the sound her shoes made on the marble, spinning underneath the cupola in the cathedral so that her skirts belled out over the top of her boots, unseen by anyone but God —

— the smell of campfire cooking, lazy heat baked into every spare hollow of her, horses twitching away flies —

— cowboys singing low, throaty, with feeling —

— lying on the floor in front of their brand-new phonograph, and when the music did something particularly moving he’d clutch at her hand, mute with wonder —

— of Héctor wearing her skirts, her pulling them up his thighs so she could get her hands on his flies underneath them, the scratchy embroidery of his blouse pressing into her breasts.

It’s been decades since she’s put her legs around a man, and it’s the most ridiculous thing, that this should come upon her now so suddenly. How badly she wants someone inside of her again, how much she misses it when she’s never bothered to miss it before. Her body conjures the sensation for her without any input from her brain, indistinguishable from how clearly she remembers everything else: the fine hairs of a horse’s nose under her palm; hauling the weight of wet clothes onto the line; Héctor’s shoulders under her hands as she puts him on his back — a hundred and one phantoms in her skin.

Imelda closes her eyes under the weight of the sunlight coming in through the window to the Rivera ofrenda, and her body aches.

 

*

 

Coco’s waiting for her when she’s done with her ballot.

“Why did you lose your temper with that man?” she asks, pulling her shawl further up her shoulders. They pass the line of voters waiting to get to the ballot boxes, snaking out the door and down the sidewalk; in a town the size of Santa Cecilia, there’s only one polling place, so the rich women in their pearls mingle in line alongside the dusty roadworkers in their neckerchiefs, both eyeballing the other like they’re not sure they’re in the right place.

Imelda scowls. “I didn’t!” she protests.

Coco lifts an eyebrow.

“All I did was point out that Díaz Ordaz has no sympathy for workers on strike and we should be wary of any authority figure who doesn’t want us to have access to the means to educate our children — and he bit my head off first. Me! Old enough to be his grandmother! The young politíco these days, no manners.”

“You’re still losing your temper with him,” Coco points out dryly. “You could have just told him it wasn’t his business.”

“It should have gone without saying! His mother didn’t hit him with her shoe nearly enough when he was young, he’s been pampered!”

“Mamá …”

A sudden suspicion dawns on her, and she squints sidelong at her daughter.

“Is this where you tell me I just don’t like it when things are out of my control?”

Unbidden, Coco flashes her a smile. “You’re thinking of Victoria, it’s one of her favorite arguments to use. ‘You don’t have a moral objection to space travel, Tío Gabriel, you just don’t like things being out of your control.’”

Imelda, who remembers that conversation (“Don’t encourage them!” Gabriel had protested, as soon as he realized Óscar and Felipe were on Victoria’s side, re: space travel, “I’m just saying, we should try to fix our problems on earth before we take them to space, hm?”) can’t help it. She laughs, too.

“Besides,” she starts, and then stops.

She’d been about to say, besides, if people are prayers, then sometimes Mexico gets on the genuflector and offers God a prayer that’s more a slap in the face, meaning Ordaz, but she has no idea where she got that idea. How peculiar.

Later that night, when most of the family’s gone to Mariachi Plaza to listen to the election results — like there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind who’s going to win, but Imelda supposes it’s really just an excuse to get together on a weeknight and eat — she passes through the kitchen after putting out scraps for the mangy cat and hears Coco call, “Mamá?”

“Yes, Coco?”

“Come out here for a minute, would you?”

It’s raining, but barely; the cobbles are freckled with dark spots except for where the cypress branches cast cover. Coco stands under the overhang, listening to the sound it makes on the branches, fingers combing out each of her braids in turn so she can redo them.

She ties off the second bow and takes Imelda’s arm, smiling up at her.

“Stand with me,” she says, “and count your blessings.”

It’s like stepping on a snake.

Shocked, Imelda hisses and reels away, but Coco hauls her back in with surprising strength.

“You don’t have to sing,” she says patiently in response to Imelda’s betrayed look. “I just like the rhyming. It’s soothing.”

The entire top shelf of Coco’s bookshelf is poetry; it’s her greatest indulgence. That and her puns. These days, all Coco has to do is pause, and then start in a certain tone of voice, “so would you say —“ and everyone would immediately shout “NO” without even having heard it, because they know what’s coming and they won’t like it. They’ll admire it, but they won’t like it.

She looks at the side of Coco’s head, and wonders if she even knows what she’s doing.

That all her life, she’s been composing and calling it something else.

She turns them so they’re facing each other and puts her hands on either side of Coco’s face, smoothing down the places where the braids start. She smiles.

“The only blessing I need to count, mija,” she says softly, “is the one standing right in front of me.”

 

*

 

She lives to be 71 years old.

Which won’t sound like much to present standards, she supposes, but considering when she was a young girl everyone chewed tobacco until their teeth fell out and the women pinned rags inside their skirts in lieu of any sanitary supplies at all — not to mention that little matter of the Revolution, whose body count they still cannot agree on; at last estimate, they think it cost one and a half million lives; or, to put it another way, it killed one in seven Mexicans — she doesn’t think she did do too badly, thank you.

Santa Cecilia’s community center is a novel construction (a little too novel, as Imelda still isn’t sure what to do with a building if it’s not named for a saint,) wedged in between all the residential streets. Because it’s the 60’s, every room is painted some bright primary color; yellows and reds, oranges and greens. In the women’s showers, it’s blue walls and blue tile, and Imelda washes the chlorine from her hair, water rushing over her bath slippers. The steam smudges the color of the walls, making her feel weightless, vaguely underwater.

She soaps up her armpits, and feels a lump move.

“Ah,” she says, low.

After that, things move very fast.

They tell her she can go to Mexico City, to get radium, that it will make her very tired but it will kill the big growth in her breast, the one that’s seeding littler growths in her liver, her armpit. It will give her more time.

“I have never been to Mexico City in my life,” she complains to Coco on the way home. It’s the middle of the afternoon and the children have just been released from school: they part around Imelda and Coco in the street, shouting to each other. In the span of a few blocks, they’ve managed to get their ties loose and their shoes off, laces knotted together and slung over their shoulders. “I haven’t left Santa Cecilia in fifty years — ”

“I know, Mamá,” sighs Coco, who is those fifty years.

“— and I’m not going to start now.”

Usually, long-honed habit has them taking the roundabout way home to avoid Mariachi Plaza, but Coco doesn’t say anything when Imelda wordlessly steers them in that direction. She’s tired, she wants to be in her own room, with the window open so she can hear the sounds from the shop and smell Paula’s cooking, watch the sun change shape through the branches of the cypress tree. She wants to be home.

The Santa Cecilia of present is a far cry from when Imelda first arrived in 1918, when her family had been nothing but the suggestion of a shape growing underneath her blouse. It’s on a map now, probably.

It’s got a community center with a pool, a drive-in movie theater and a train station, and the shop where Imelda buys her batteries has a refrigerated case by the counter filled with nothing but glass bottles of Coca Cola.

(“But, abuelita, that’s been there for years,” Victoria interjects, cutting into the middle of Imelda’s rant about it.

“Well, then why haven’t I seen it before?” Imelda says irritably. “Do you know how much meat you can keep from spoiling in a case that size! And it’s just sitting there, full of soda pop,” and, with dignity, ignores the looks of long-suffering her granddaughters exchange.)

Casa Rivera, which had once been on the edge of town and as ramshackle as the rest of it, has been swallowed up by new construction: they’re in the middle of an actual neighborhood now, where the cobbled streets are called traditional, compared to, Imelda imagines, the asphalt they’ve got in other places. Nasty stuff.

But if she looks sidelong, out of the corner of her eye, it doesn’t take much to conjure up the bones of how it used to be.

The statue of Saint Cecilia is gone from Mariachi Plaza, moved to courtyard of the little museo where the tourists meet for the walking tours. She’s been replaced by that statue of Ernesto: they captured his smug, mustached little smirk perfectly, Imelda hates it. The water pump’s still there, but now it’s got a plaque next to it: in memoriam to the 111 lives lost to a record outbreak of dysentery, summer 1907, to match the sculpture of the little girl in the cemetery, insurgente blanket pulled up around her shoulders and her braids lifted by an unseen wind, her hand shading her eyes as she looks towards the cemetery gates, like she’s hoping someone will come through them. That awful monument to Porfirio Díaz’s soldiers got shipped north, once Ernesto bought the plot and had a white marble mausoleum built on top of it after his death.

There’d be horses over there, tied to their posts since the stall-keepers always raised such a fuss about curious horses nibbling their wares and leaving their droppings everywhere. The market itself has hardly changed — more cartoon characters among the piñatas, maybe.

“I’ve never had any desire to go to Mexico City, mija,” continues Imelda, who is stuck on this point. “And they don’t even promise it will work.”

Coco pats her hand patiently.

“Like the nun said,” she says, “it’s like the lottery— any chance is better than no chance at all, and your odds with this are much better than your chances of being a lottery winner.”

“Yes, I know,” she says as they pass underneath the Zapateros sign through the gate into the Rivera compound. Rosita, serving customers out front, looks up and twinkles her fingers at them over the counter. They haven’t yet told the other Riveras the reason for Imelda’s doctor visit. “I would rather stay here, why can’t they —“

But Coco’s stopped listening.

“Ay! What are you two doing!” she shouts.

The children startle guiltily. They’d been stamping on top of the well cover to make it echo (Imelda’s been meaning to call someone about getting the well filled, since the compound had been installed with running water years ago; it’s just an accident waiting to happen,) and now they leap off and come running up to them.

“Hola, Mamá Coco, hola, Mamá Imelda!” they chorus, and Imelda bends down to offer her papery cheek for a kiss.

“What did I tell you, niños,” Coco tells them repressively. “It’s not safe.”

They squirm. “Yes, Mamá Coco.”

Like with Santa Cecilia, all Imelda has to do is look at it sideways and she’s fifty years ago, with Coco and Soledad standing here, inexpertly trying to cover up whatever little crime it was she caught them at. But Coco’s beside her, and these two are Soledad’s grandchildren, who last year for Día de los Muertos made rings of forget-me-nots to lay as an offering on Soledad’s grave.

Soledad’s three sons all live in Mexico City, having escaped one-by-one. They were there with their protest signs when the government rolled in tanks, meaning to clear them out of Tlatelolco by force just days before the opening ceremonies of the Mexico City Olympic Games. Following the massacre, the oldest of them sent his children back to Santa Cecilia, to Coco — no child, tía, he told her, should have to look down the muzzle of a soldier’s gun, or watch their parents flattened to the concrete and arrested.

They’re still going through the courts, last Imelda heard. The protestors never won their education reform.

“Mamá Imelda! Look, look what we did at school!”

She takes the papers shook under her nose and tries to bring them into focus.

“Is this … ?”

But they are. They’re shoes!

Shoes with highly impractical designs: devil horns, and laces that look like snakes, wingtips much too wide that would catch on each other and trip the wearer, but once upon a time Óscar and Felipe’s designs had been more imagination than sense, too, and they kept at it.

Imelda looks down at their earnest, round faces — dimpled —

— and wants every minute, every last second of time.

She says to Coco, “I do not need to pack much. A change of clothes, a book.”

And Coco says, “Yes, Mamá.”

 

*

 

But it’s Mexico City, 1969, and Imelda’s luck runs out in a nondescript room in a tower block three streets over from what used to be an old train station. The glimpse she’ll get sometimes of the tracks takes her back to San Juan Albán, the way the steam engines screamed outside the walls of the Consequela hacienda. She leans on the window to ease her aching and wonders if these Mexico City trains ever made a stop in her hometown — all those years spent wanting to sing in the capital the way the Jalisco musician did, trying to find a way into the mountain through all the armies surrounding it, and it could have been that simple?

Once, after laboriously replacing the toilet seat cover she’d knocked askew in the dark, she stands in the hallway and wishes she could ask what her cousin Ines would think of all this — of Tlatelolco, the government’s granaderos mowing down students with machine guns. Yajaira, too. The two of them had always believed in Mexico as powerfully as she did.

The apartment belongs to Soledad’s oldest, and the kitchen table is covered with papers in torn-open envelopes from various law firms brave enough to represent the victims and stand against Díaz Ordaz of the no-sympathy presidency, or from journalists wanting interviews. In short order, they’re joined by envelopes from Imelda’s doctors.

She sleeps twenty hours out of twenty-four, lets Coco take care of everything.

“You must understand, that’s not my nature,” she tells the young man who lives here.

“Of course, doña,” he answers politely.

“It’s the medicine making me tired,” she insists. “That’s all.”

“Of course.”

This is Soledad’s youngest son, the baby who never got to know her. At nineteen, he still bears a remarkable resemblance to the infant she saw being unceremoniously lifted from Coco’s arms; a small, sun-browned nut of a boy who gives horseriding lessons to rich kids and does charreada shows on the weekends, which take him as far north as El Estado Grande — Imelda’s never been to Chihuahua, either, and can’t imagine it.

She calls Coco to her side.

“You should send him to see Elena when he’s next in Santa Cecilia,” she informs her, keeping her voice low. “You know how she does with cowboy boots.”

Coco gives her a shrewd look. “Don’t try to matchmake my daughter to Franco, Mamá.”

Imelda huffs, caught.

“Fine,” she says. “Don’t do it for her. Do it for him. He deserves to have something nice.”

One night, Imelda shakes herself abruptly awake, and couldn’t tell you why. Nothing about the night is disturbed, but she’s awake as surely as a light snapped on. She struggles to her elbows.

Her eyes, unbidden, search for her blessings in the order of their importance — her daughter, by the window where the moonlight can see her; her family, but they’re miles away; Mexico, awake and churning towards the future, even at this hour of the night.

At the sound of her rustling, Coco looks over. Her face softens.

“Ah, Mamá,” she says. “There you are.”

And Imelda’s ambushed, all at once, by the memory of Coco at three, in her nightgown with the matching ribbons with chubby little girl hands pressed to her mouth to stifle her giggles. Héctor stands in the doorway, hands on his hips, exaggeratedly sweeping a searching look back and forth somewhere high above Coco’s head.

Mamá, have you seen my Coco? he asks Imelda, patting down his pockets like a Coco might fit in there.

No, Papá, Imelda answers patiently. I have not seen your Coco.

Coco giggles harder.

Héctor spots her all at once. Oh, there you are, he says briskly, like Coco isn’t any different from his wallet or his songbook or his keys, temporarily misplaced and then rediscovered somewhere completely reasonable. Coco lets loose a shriek of laughter and stretches her arms out to be lifted, because she knows that’s not true.

Ah, there you are — like you aren’t always on my mind.

“It’s all right, Coco,” Imelda tells her, and straightens up so she can remove her earrings — she’d fallen asleep with them on, those heirlooms she got from the widow in the jungle, that she’s kept all her life and repaired as needed. She sets them on the bedside table. She rearranges the pillow.

She lays her head back down.

She does not wake up.

 

*

Chapter Text

*

 

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 read