This had been a disaster, as she should have known it would be. It was time for them to put the past away for good.
She blasted through the workshop, ignoring a yowl from the stray cat she surprised out of sleep, and pushed into the living room. Coco was still behind her, straightening something that had fallen over.
Imelda went to the mantel and took down the picture of the family, of Héctor with his crooked smile. The guitar was already hidden. Imelda couldn't stand the sight of it. But it was time to get rid of the rest. This wasn't her family anymore.
She threw it to floor and the glass shattered. Her own face was obscured by spidery cracks. Coco seemed to be reaching out to touch them. Héctor was untouched by it.
She reached down and picked it up, and black fury rushed through her. She tore it, ripping his head from his shoulders, and let the curled bit fly off. She was reaching for the other side when Coco rushed in and ripped it from her hands, somehow managing not to tear it. "Mamá!" she screamed. "Mamá, why
don't we go to the cemetery?" Coco asked, stepping carefully over the marigolds. "Everyone is there!"
"We don't have anyone there, querida," Imelda said. "Our people are still alive."
"What does 'alive' mean?"
"It means that you're here. That you're breathing and talking and thinking and loving people."
"Is Papá alive? He's not here."
Imelda felt her throat tighten. It had been six months since the last letter. Almost a year since the last one that actually said anything. He had been gone for seventeen months now, and that wasn't counting the three months they'd spent arguing before Ernesto had finally won his allegiance. She'd tried everything she could think of. She'd even tried for another baby. The first had happened so naturally and accidentally, but this time, even though she suspected Héctor was trying as well (it would have taken the choice out of his hands), it had just not happened. In the end, he'd walked off into a rare gray morning, his guitar slung over his back, and Imelda had thrown something after him. She didn't remember what.
The thought had crossed her mind from time to time that… that something had happened… but… "Tío Nesto would have told us if something happened to Papá," she said. "He is simply… he left us."
"To play his little songs for people. I don't want to talk about this, Coco."
She nodded, but frowned as they came around the corner near the baker's stall. He was doing a brisk business in pan de muerto, of course. To be left on graves, or ofrendas.
"Marisol says that people who've left us come back on Día de los Muertos," Coco said tentatively.
"That would be a miracle, indeed. I would not count on it." They reached the booth, and Imelda picked out everyday bread, and a little cake for dessert. "Who is Marisol?"
"From school," Coco said proudly. "She is my friend. She's better at numbers than I am, but I'm better at words."
Coco nodded. "I know all my letters, and I can rhyme words like Papá!" She paled. "I mean… I sometimes make rhymes."
Imelda sighed and paid the baker, who was looking at them with sympathy. She steered Coco further down the road. "There is no reason to be ashamed of where you got that from. You got what was good."
Her frown deepened. "Papá was good. I want Papá. I want my song."
"I'll sing it for you later."
"I want Papá to sing it for me." She stuck out her lower lip, then it trembled and she started to cry. "I want Papá! I want Papá, where is my papá…?"
It wasn't the first time anger had swept over Imelda since Héctor's disappearance, but it was the first time it was wound through with utterly black hatred. Coco had always been his child more than hers, even when she was still nursing. Mamá was a source of food. Papá was the center her world. And he had left her. Imelda could handle the idea that she herself had been abandoned -- she didn't like it, but she supposed Héctor had no responsibility to her, and she had made her own mistakes along the way. But the fact that he'd left Coco, the person he'd pretended to love most in the world…
The wave of hatred broke over her, and she let it drown her for a minute while she kissed and cuddled her grieving daughter. Like the waves of anger, it eventually receded. She took a deep breath. "Coco," she said, "we will be strong. We will keep our heads up."
Still sniffling, Coco said, "Marisol says, if you make an ofrenda for someone who left…"
"Ofrendas are for the dead, not the living," Imelda said.
"We could try."
Imelda wasn't sure what she believed about death or the afterlife. It had never mattered to her much, one way or the other. But the one thing she was certain of was that no one actually saw their returned loved ones, or was sung to by them. It would only invite more disappointment, even if…
No, she told herself. People do not just die and then disappear on concert tours. People were watching him. He was with his best friend, however much of a snake that friend was. Even a snake would have mentioned to someone that his friend was dead. Therefore, Héctor is alive, so even if the dead could visit, he would not. Because he is on a stage somewhere, being a clown and basking in applause, like he always loved best.
For a moment, she imagined Coco sitting up beside some makeshift ofrenda all night, waiting for her beloved Papá to magically appear for her, and crying herself to sleep when he didn't. The furious, helpless hate and anger broke over her again.
She shook her head. "No. No, Coco. We will not pretend anything other than the truth: Papá left us for his career. I'm sorry, and I wish he hadn't. But he did. We need to accept it."
Coco looked down at her feet and nodded, and Imelda cursed herself along with Héctor. What parents they had turned out to be! He'd decided to spend her childhood on the road and she was deliberately making deep scars here.
She put her free hand gently on Coco's face. "I'm sorry, querida. I'm so very sorry for everything."
Coco took both of her hands and put them on the sides of Imelda's face, leaning in reverently. It took Imelda a moment to recognize the gesture as the one she had always given to Héctor when he finished their song.
"I love you, Mamá," she said.
Imelda set down her bread and cake and put her arms around her daughter, picking her up and holding her tightly. "I love you, too, mijita. We'll be all right. You'll see. We'll be all right."
Coco nodded against her neck. Imelda let her go a little bit, and leaned back far enough to kiss her forehead.
"Shall we bring our bread home and have supper with Tío Oscar and Tío Felipe? Tío Oscar is making tlayudas."
Coco found a smile, although she was still sniffling, and nodded.
"Will you be a big girl and carry the bread?"
"Yes, Mamá." She bent down and picked up the bread.
Imelda steered her the rest of the way home.
Oscar was busy in the kitchen, making a grand mess as he always did. Felipe was in the little workshop, setting a nice block heel on a boot. Coco went over to him and watched carefully.
"Do you want to learn?" he asked. "Are you ready to be a shoemaker like your mamá?"
"She's a bit young," Imelda said, sitting down at her own station.
Coco sat down on the floor beside her, leaning comfortably against her skirts. "I'll learn," she said. "I'll make myself pretty shoes with flowers on them."
"Flowers!" Imelda repeated. "I could make you a pair with flowers, if you want."
"Can I make the flower part?"
"Leather is too hard for your hands." Imelda set down the awl she'd picked up. "Why don't we start you with cloth? Eh? It won't be fancy shoes, but maybe some slippers for the house. You can make the upper into anything you want, and I'll put a sole on it for you."
"Yes. It won't be easy. "But you're a clever girl, and you can do it."
"What do you say? Are you clever like mamá?" Felipe asked, then looked up. "What do you think Mamá Imelda? Little Mary Janes?"
"The strap will be too hard. Flats. Go on, mija. Go get your lasts."
This got a genuine smile. Imelda had made new lasts for Coco just last week, casting her feet in plaster, which always made her happy. (In fact, Imelda usually made two sets, so Coco could play with one.) She supposed she could use the size three standard at the moment -- she was developing quite the collection of sizes now, all in much better condition than the set that had been left behind with the house -- but it pleased her to make shoes for Coco that were specifically for her feet, with every quirk accounted for. Coco rushed out to her room to get her lasts.
"You know we'll end up making most of them," Felipe said.
"No. I'll guide her. It will amuse her."
"Do you have time to walk her through making shoes at five?"
"I'll do some of my own work after she's in bed. And she's six, Felipe. Remember, we had a party?"
"More like a funeral," he muttered.
Imelda ground her teeth, trying not to let the anger and hate back in. Coco's fifth birthday had occasioned a letter from Héctor. It had contained a side note apologizing and begging forgiveness, because Ernesto had extended the tour again, but it was contact nonetheless. He'd written her another little song, and Imelda had broken out her own guitar to play it and sing it for her, though she had privately been fuming that Ernesto couldn't even give Héctor three days to come home for his daughter's birthday.
Her sixth birthday, however, had been a different matter. She had waited every day for the mail to come and each time it failed to bring a letter, she had cried. Imelda and the twins had done their solid best to make a good birthday. Imelda had even tried to write a song herself, thinking maybe she could pass it off as Héctor's, but she hadn't been able to do it. It was much harder than it had looked from the outside. Coco had spent the actual day sitting at the window, as if she expected Héctor to come walking up the path like nothing had happened. Of course, he didn't. And even having every little girl in Santa Cecilia over to play with a piñata and eat real ice cream had done nothing to cheer her up.
Felipe stabbed his awl at the leather he was working. "I will kill Héctor myself if he ever does show his face," he said. "If I can do it before Oscar gets to it, anyway."
"I've earned the first blow," Imelda reminded him. "And I won't take it because Coco would not forgive me, let alone you and Oscar, so put it out of your head."
"Then what would you do?"
"I don't know. He'd be sleeping elsewhere, at any rate." She looked down at a freshly papered last and tried to decide what pattern to make next. "I doubt we'll ever know what we'd do. I think he's gone off to find… how did he put it? Who he's meant to be." She bit her lip. "Coco wanted to put him up on an ofrenda."
"Even if he were dead, it might be better for her to forget him. He left."
"Will you say something else?"
"What should I say? When have we ever put up an ofrenda? Who would we put on it? Our parents? Do you remember them?"
"No. And we are fine. We have you. So does Coco."
And who do I have? Imelda wondered, but didn't say. She had always been a substitute mother to the twins, now she was a true mother to Coco. The only person she had ever leaned on was Héctor. Now that he was gone, it was either stand up alone or fall.
It hadn't been easy to learn to stand. She had already decided never to fall back on leaning again.
Coco returned with her lasts, dancing them across the table in a quick little cha-cha. Imelda rolled her eyes, then pulled Coco up beside her on the workbench and started showing her how to make a pattern. Partway through the process, Coco became entirely distracted with the making of cloth flowers. It should have been the very last point of the exercise, but Oscar came in from the kitchen to find out what was going on, and got her going on the silly things, which delighted her to no end. As much as Imelda wanted to start teaching her daughter basic tricks of shoemaking, she preferred a delighted Coco to a merely distracted one, so she let it go on until Coco had made several little cloth marigolds.
"Will cloth ones make a trail, too?" she asked.
Imelda bit her tongue, then said, "They would if we had an ofrenda. At least as much as we can believe the real ones make a trail."
"You don't believe?"
"I don't know, mija."
She frowned, but there was no time for a conversation, because Oscar had finished supper, and they all went in to eat. Felipe brought out the week's newspaper, which had come in the mail, and read out the best stories. Coco loved stories where there were princesses, so Felipe found whatever he could from abroad. Imelda wanted to know about the economy (Felipe pretended to fall asleep while he was reading these). Felipe himself had to know about horse races. And Oscar always begged for the bizarre.
"Someday," Felipe said, "there will be nothing bizarre in the entire newspaper."
"They go out of their way for it. Go on. Find us something."
"Let's see… de la Huerta treaty, more taxes…"
"Depressing, not bizarre," Oscar said.
"The Great Tree of Tule is starting to show its age."
"At eight hundred, that's expected."
"There's that kidnapping of the land redistribution man…"
"Politics. Does anyone want politics?" No one did. Oscar waved his hand in a "go on" gesture. Felipe continued to scan. "Communist rallies… no. We live as primal savages according to Yankees."
"What?" Imelda asked.
"I only read it. From San Francisco."
"They don't like us so much they should stop using our language for their cities," Oscar said.
Felipe went on. "Typhoid, no, more taxes, no. Rebels. No. Ah, here. Mummies."
"Mummies?" Imelda repeated.
"Remember that train car they lost on the way to Juarez? No one knew where it came unattached? They found it. A year later. Someone was hitching a ride in it. The desert wasn't kind."
Imelda wrinkled her nose. "Save that for when Coco and I aren't here."
"All right, all right. Back to the tree?"
And so he went back and read the article about the eight hundred year old tree, and Coco worried that it would fall down soon, and later on, they sat around the fire and talked about their childhood (omitting Héctor as much as possible), which was more or less their only tradition around Día de los Muertos. Imelda told the story she remembered of her nanny, and Coco asked what a nanny was ("Someone who is hired when a mother is too busy to take care of her children," Imelda explained, to Coco's horror). They speculated a bit about who their parents were, but the question didn't seem pressing anymore. Coco finally fell asleep on Oscar's lap, and Imelda put her to bed. The cloth marigolds fell out of one of her pockets. Imelda scooped them up without thinking about it.
Out the window, she could see Oscar and Felipe in the frames of the little cabins they were building. The plan was to eventually connect everything around, putting the well in an enclosed courtyard. The twins liked sleeping in the unfinished frames, under tents, for some reason. Men. They were always boys somewhere inside.
But you took Héctor's boyhood. You forced him out of it. Of course he left you to have fun in his way. Of course…
She silenced the nagging voice in her head, which had belonged to more than one person in Santa Cecilia over the last six years. With other girls, they assumed that the boy had been responsible for a ruination (though of course, "she should have known better" was a refrain). With Héctor? That had been Imelda's fault. The worst part was, she couldn't really argue. She'd always felt like she was the one doing the taking. She'd come across one of God's little miracles, and she'd taken and kept him for herself.
And of course, she had lost him.
No. He was with you of his own free will, and he left the same way. God and miracles and even you have nothing to with it.
She looked down at the cloth marigolds in her hand, and, on a whim, dropped them in a line toward the bed, toward the little nightstand where she kept the picture of her family. She could put up a candle. Maybe put out some of his songs. Maybe a few of her hair ribbons, which he'd so loved to unwind. She could play for him and sing, an offering. Coco wouldn't have to know if he didn't come.
She reached into the little drawer and pulled out a candle, lighting it from her oil lamp, and set it down in a holder beside the frame. Then she took Héctor's last charro suit out of the closet, holding it up to her nose and wishing for a scent that wasn't there. What else? His letters? One of the poems?
From the next room, she heard Coco begin to cry again.
Furiously, she blew out the candle and shoved it back into the drawer. There was an old trunk at the foot of the bed, and she opened it. She pulled all of Héctor's remaining clothes from the closet and threw them inside, finishing it off with the charro jacket.
Then, with a decisive move, she put the family portrait in there as well.
She slammed it shut and pushed it away.
Then she went to Coco's room to comfort her from whatever nightmare had woken her up.