Solo quería escuchar tu voz,
pero lo perdí en el clamor.
Solo quería darte todo,
pero entonces perdí tu amor
The dead had no particular need to sleep.
They didn't have any need to eat, either, and Héctor had fallen out of the habit over the last few decades, but most did so anyway. It was nothing like the sumptuous piles of food from the world of the living that appeared on Día de Muertos, but food seemed to just appear when it was needed, at least for the well-remembered. Héctor wasn't sure where it came from, or why it made a difference how people remembered you on an average Tuesday. Julio, with whom he'd had many strangely pleasant conversations on the subject over the last two months, thought that the dead might create these things for themselves, but as they were forgotten, more and more of their energy was used up imagining their bodies holding together, since there was no one in the living world to imagine that for them. As to where the food went after they swallowed it, neither of them had wanted to speculate. Héctor enjoyed the reappearance of food in his life too much to think about it too closely.
Shelter wasn't necessary, either, as there was no real weather here. It was consistently pleasant and peaceful, even in the middle of the city. But everyone seemed to need a place, and places… appeared. The big public buildings were ones from the land of the living that had been torn down or destroyed, and so were some of the residences. But the apartment blocks, hotels, and even some sprawling single-home neighborhoods seemed to simply generate units when they were needed. No one paid rent, and it was taken for granted by most newcomers. Héctor, on the other hand, had not had the energy to imagine a home for himself for years, if that was how it worked. He'd found no open doors to empty rooms, no keys, no little shacks or big mansions. He'd just been squatting at the base of a pyramid in Los Olvidados since the mid-1980s. ("When I crossed over," Victoria had realized. "Mamá must have been thinking more about me.")
Sleep was a strange thing here. Everyone seemed to retire to their private spaces at night, and possibly to rest themselves and gather their strength. The forgotten often made themselves nests and didn't move around much, because they were losing their cohesion. (Héctor had not wanted to be like that, which was why he'd left the neighborhood as often as he could, trying to stay in touch with Ceci and even the unpleasant Gustavo.) It was a kind of sleep. When there was something happening at night, like Día de Muertos celebrations, no one bothered at all.
All of which was to say, Héctor had not really considered the fact that he had no bed here, and hadn't had one for decades, until Imelda, not quite meeting his eyes on his first night back with the family, had asked him if he meant to sleep here, because "I don't think… yet… I…"
Surprised that the issue was even up for future debate, Héctor had made a quick joke about his blushing bride, and she'd rolled her eyes and said he was younger than her grandchildren now. But the issue was out there, and had been for some time. Rather than discussing it, Imelda seemed to have decided to avoid the issue by staying up all the time, usually talking to Héctor in the workshop after everyone else retired to their places. She'd made him a good pair of shoes (like food and shelter, materials seemed to just appear), and she was trying to teach him to join her business. He was trying to learn. He wanted to be part of his family again.
Unfortunately, he had never had her particular talent with crafts. In two months, he'd managed to make three pairs of simple chanclas, and one of them had fallen apart two days after Christmas.
"Papá," Coco said, looking at them ruefully, "I think this might not be your calling."
"It's just possible."
She grinned and squeezed his shoulders in a careful hug. She wasn't used to maneuvering around as a skeleton yet, and was as overcautious as most new arrivals. "Don't worry. My first few pairs were just as bad."
"Yes. Of course, I was six."
Héctor sighed dramatically. "You don't respect me!"
"Don't joke about that," she said, leaning over and kissing his cheek. "Never that."
"As a shoemaker."
"I have no judgment of you as a shoemaker. Because you aren't a shoemaker. You're quite good at making shoes, for a musician. They held together for almost three weeks."
"And the others are still together," Julio said. "I think you were a little distracted with that pair. I think most of the shoes we made the week Coco came to us show some distraction."
"Even Imelda had to throw away a pair." Oscar unfurled a new roll of leather. "It's not every day our one hundred year old little girl joins us, after all."
Héctor didn't join in, even though the conversation was mostly for his benefit. He gave Coco's hand a squeeze, and she returned it gratefully. Like most people when they first crossed over, she was still mourning the living world. She put on a strong face, and she was genuinely happy to be with her husband and daughter again, but Héctor had seen the way she had pasted pictures up all over the music room that had appeared upstairs, on the family's shared level. She hadn't been sure they would make the crossing with her, but like his own photo, they had been with her in the physical world when she died. Her granddaughter, Gloria, had made a packet of them and was holding it to her hand, and it was still there when she found herself on the wispy marigold bridge. She'd told Héctor the story during the long hours they'd spent re-making one another's acquaintance. Héctor had found, to his delight, that he adored her as much as an elderly woman as he had when she was a four year old girl. She seemed not to mind his presence much, either.
At any rate, while the others had mostly forgotten the pain of mourning the living -- they had long since accustomed themselves to only having yearly visits -- and just treated her coming as a celebration, Héctor understood how she was feeling. He had never had the visits, and had spent the last century desperate to cross back over, just to see the person he'd left behind. In Coco's case, it was mainly her great-grandchildren, who she was afraid she'd never see grow up. Especially Miguel, who, she admitted, had been her special favorite. "Since he was a baby," she told Héctor. "I sang to him when no one was looking, and he was practically dancing in my arms."
"He's a good boy. I hope I'll be able to see him, but we lost my picture."
She'd smiled. "Oh, Papá. I never lost your picture. I gave it to Miguel, and he'll see that it's on the ofrenda. I promise."
Somewhere between them was the question of why she hadn't put it up herself, even after Imelda passed over, but Héctor didn't have a burning need for the answer, and when she tried to start apologizing, he just held up his hand and shook his head. He didn't want any sadness or regret from Coco. He just wanted her back in his life.
She studied the broken chancla. "Maybe I should keep it in my purse. Elena always found them very useful."
"Elena started in with the chancla?" Victoria came in from the kitchen, bearing plates of the food that had appeared for dessert. She tutted a little. "She used to hate that when Mamá Imelda did it."
"Elena is a master of the chancla," Coco said. "A disciplinary artist. She is the head of the house." She looked at Héctor. "I never minded taking a back seat to my daughter. She had definite ideas of how to run the family. And she made me smile."
"Mamá, you shouldn't have let her push you around."
Coco caught Héctor's gaze and they both laughed. There was no sense being unhappy with the forces of nature that surrounded them. Better to let the wind blow through its course, and to bend with it. If shelter was needed, it was easier to provide it -- to the Elenas and Victorias and Imeldas of the world as much as anyone else -- if you weren't too busy blustering around yourself.
"Gloria and Enrique are more like us," she said. "Of course, Miguel…"
"Yes, we all met Miguel," Oscar said. "Or, as we like to think of him, Imelda in blue jeans."
The shop door opened, and Imelda came in with drinks. Sangria. Never tequila now, Héctor had noticed, though she'd drunk as much of it as he had once. For all he knew, this abstinence dated from finding out how he'd been poisoned. He hadn't asked.
She set down the tray and passed them out. "Are we having a laugh at my expense?"
"At Miguel's," Julio said.
"Why do I not believe you?" She sat down at her well-worn work station and examined a pile of orders.
"Part of it is Papá's expense," Coco said, holding up the chancla.
Imelda looked at the broken shoe and sighed. "No worries," she said. "We can salvage the parts. Here, Héctor. I'll show you where the problem is."
He sat down beside her gratefully, and tried to follow her lesson on proper stitching. Everyone else drank their sangria and finished up their daily projects. Coco and Julio went up to their rooms on the fourth floor, and the twins disappeared to the third. Victoria, a spinster who shared her space with her spinster aunt, Rosita, was the last to retire.
Imelda had found the weakness in the chancla -- in a piece of leather that looked the same as every other piece to Héctor -- and was shoring it up to restitch and create a new shoe from the wreck. Everyone gave her a kiss as they headed upstairs. It was all very matter-of-fact, and Héctor loved it.
She looked down at the shoe. "You don't have to be a shoemaker, Héctor," she said. "I've spent enough time forcing people to be shoemakers."
"No one seems to mind."
"Except Miguel. He said I was ruining his life."
"Miguel is twelve. He probably thinks his mamá is ruining his life when she tells him to eat vegetables before dessert."
"You know it's not that."
Héctor nodded. "I do. But you have to stop doing this to yourself. You kept our family together, no thanks to me--"
"I made a very crazy rule."
"And they all loved you so much that they followed it for decades. They wouldn't have done that except for the fact that they loved you. And you deserved to be loved."
"Hmmph." She picked up a fanciful pair of high heels she'd been working on, with buckle braces to keep bones in place, so they wouldn't spread too much for comfort.
Héctor wasn't sure what to say to her in this mood. He wasn't exactly a person whose track record in their relationship would make her feel deserving of love. He got up and wandered around the workshop, which was on the first floor of an ever-growing house in a neighborhood far from the plaza which had been called, until two months ago, the Plaza de la Cruz. Imelda's resting room was off to the side, in the same place Héctor remembered their room having been in the old days. The room that would have been Coco's old room was unoccupied. He opened that door, wondering if it would be for him eventually, but it was still full of ancient shoemaking equipment. He moved on and tried another door, which led to the street, and a third, which was, as always, a broom closet. No new doors had appeared.
"I can move things out of Coco's room," Imelda offered. "If you want your own spot. Until… If." She looked down.
"I don't think it's for me." He sat down across from her and put his hand over hers, stopping her fretting at the shoe. "I can go back to Los Olvidados. I have a squat there, and -- "
"No. You are not forgotten, Héctor. You don't belong in that awful place." She smiled ruefully. "De la Cruz should be there. You should move into that obnoxious house he built with your blood."
"I don't really want to live in my murderer's house."
"It's a perfectly fine house."
Héctor frowned. "Do you… want it? I could… if you want it, I think they're going to put him away for a long time, but…"
"I don't want it. It will stink of him." She stabbed an awl through a piece of leather in a very final-looking way. When she pulled it up and looked at the hole she'd made, she tossed the leather into a waste bin. Héctor had no idea what was wrong with it. She picked up another piece and smoothed it out, but instead of stabbing it, she said quietly, "I knew what he was. I knew it better than Coco did. I knew what lies he told about you --"
"What lies did he tell?"
"Ones I did not believe, no matter how angry I was. Lies about women. About…" She closed her eyes, as if listening to that ancient voice. "Just dirty lies. And I knew that, Héctor. I never suspected… even at the worst…"
"I know, Imelda."
"I knew what he was," she said again. "I thought I did. I was so worldly-wise, you know. But I never suspected… not even when you wrote to Coco about getting stomach aches whenever he had meetings."
She raised her the painted designs that served as her eyebrows now. "People don't just pick up a powerful poison on the off chance they'll need it, Héctor. He was using it for other things first. If I'd thought of poison -- ever -- I'd have known. Maybe I could have even gotten on a train and gotten there in time to pour it out…"
Héctor went to her and put his hands on her shoulders. There was no muscle there to be tense, but he could still feel it. "Don't do this to yourself, cariña."
"Why not?" She turned around and took his hands, possibly the most direct affection she'd shown in the two months they'd been back together. "Héctor, we lost a century. A century because I was a fool. Because I didn't protect you, even though I knew what kind of man de la Cruz was."
But she was in full swing now. She stood up and paced to the far side of her workshop, hands on her hips, and looked out across the city. "We lost everything. We lost our home. We lost all of the children who weren't born yet. And when I got here, and you tried to see me, I…" She turned around, shaking her head. "Héctor, why aren't you angry at me? Why are you… I was angry at you for what turned out not to even be your fault!"
"It was my fault that I left. You did tell me to stay. You did tell me that Ernesto was using me. I didn't believe you. And I left you alone in Santa Cecilia with a child to raise. Those things are true no matter how it ended."
He went to her, knelt on the floor, and took her hands again. "Imelda, we lost a century. I'm not going to waste one more second on this."
"How can you control that? How can you stop being angry?"
"I haven't stopped being angry. At Ernesto, where it belongs. I haven't gone to see him at the jail because I want to drop another bell on him, to hell with the justice system. This time break his bones into too many pieces to put back together."
"Not at Ernesto," Imelda clarified.
"At you?" He smiled. "I never could stay angry at you, so it's not really a big change. I’m too busy being amazed that you let me look at you, let alone touch you. Or kiss you. Or live with you."
She was quiet for a minute, then sighed and let go of his hands, moving back to her work table. "I used to watch you play your guitar. The way your hands moved. Trust me. I wasn't allowing you anything."
The silence after that statement was both awkward and strangely peaceful. Héctor did not often miss his body anymore, but in the moment, he did. He wanted to pick her up, carry her to her room -- the room that had once been their room -- and make everything all right between them. Then he had a grotesque image of pulling her close to him, and their ribs tangling up like crooked tree limbs, getting stuck together so that the family would have to come in and pull them apart.
That would not be romantic.
Though it would make a funny skit in one of the more grown-up shows he and Ernesto had once done on the road.
He laughed before he could stop himself, thinking of how it would all play out, and what characters would have to come in to separate them.
Imelda looked at him suspiciously. "What is it?"
"You wouldn't appreciate it."
"All right…" He told her what he imagined.
For a second, she looked affronted, and he thought he might be asked to leave for the night. Then her shoulders twitched, and she let out a surprised, out-of-practice laugh.
He laughed with her, much longer than the joke deserved, and sat down beside her at the work table.
"I do love you, Héctor," she decided, as the laughter finally trickled off. "When I told people I wasn't sure about that -- "
"That was a lie?"
She nodded, smiling at his old routine. "Yes. That was a lie." She looked down at the shoe in her hand, seeming surprised that it was there. "Of course, the joke wouldn't work here. There are lots of married couples. I talked to Coco, there are… that is to say, they sell things to cover the ribs. I have some. I mean…" She gave a little laugh. "It's inconvenient not to be able to blush."
"Tell me about it."
"I want to get some rest."
"All right, I'll -- "
"I want you to stay with me."
The weight of the century between them seemed suddenly very present.
Héctor nodded, and followed her to her room. It was small and austere, but then, it always had been.
They lay down together, a light blanket protecting their ribs. Héctor put his arms around her, and for the first time in ninety-six years, he rested easily.